The Global African: Danny Glover & James Early on Venezuela
We talk to both guests about what the recent election results mean for Venezuela as well as the entire region. Then we give an update on the latest in Western Sahara
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ve got a great treat. We’ll talk with Danny Glover and James Early about the election outcomes in Venezuela. Then we’ll give an update on what’s going on in the Western Sahara.
That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us.
FLETCHER: On December 6, there was a political earthquake that was felt throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Venezuelan elections led to a decisive defeat of the government, party, and coalition by an opposition that ever since the emergence of Hugo Chávez and his movement has attempted to reverse every reform that has been introduced by the Bolivarian government.
Today we’re going to explore what happened. We’re going to look at the issue of Venezuela. And we’re going to look at the question of the impact or potential impact that this election has on African descendents, not simply in Venezuela, but in the Western Hemisphere, because it is the Bolivarian government of Venezuela that increasingly has raised or called attention to issues facing African descendents in the Western Hemisphere.
We’re joined for this segment by Danny Glover and James Early. Danny Glover, of course, is a great U.S. film actor, director, and activist. He’s also the cofounder and CEO of Louverture Films. James Early is a scholar and a member of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Gentlemen, welcome to The Global African.
JAMES EARLY: Thank you.
DANNY GLOVER: Thank you. Thank you very much.
FLETCHER: So I want to start this with an analysis of the Venezuelan elections. Everybody–virtually everybody was predicting that the opposition was going to do well. The question was by how much. And I wondered if the two of you were surprised by the extent of the opposition victory. And what do you make of it?
EARLY: I am surprised by the extent of the victory in terms of the two-thirds supermajority that they now have in the house and the political implications of what they can do with that. Underneath that, however, in terms of the day-to-day politics, it was a lot closer in terms of the differences of why people voted. Many people voted not for the opposition, but against the government. Many of those were–.
FLETCHER: They wanted to punish the government.
EARLY: Well, I wouldn’t even say they want to punish the government. These are people, many of them who’ve been pulled out of poverty, and now they want to have services. They have been set up over the last 16 years by what Hugo Chávez started, out of dire poverty, out of lack of participation, to become an active citizenry, and had great expectations that now they could improve the quality of their lives.
The failure of the government to deal with inflation, the currency exchange, things of that sort was frustrating. And so it was not punishment. It was saying, we want politics to be practical. We can’t eat ideology. So it’s unclear in this 20 party united front of the opposition of to what extent they’re going to be able to wield a unified politic. And it may open up different kinds of coalitions around different kinds of policies in line with the left government. So it’s going to be a battle both on the ground and both in the National Assembly.
GLOVER: It’s certainly been a disappointment for all of us who remain supportive of the Bolivarian revolution and the achievements that we saw firsthand upfront that were happening in Venezuela, the relationship–evolving relationship between the Venezuelan [incompr.] and Afro descendents, etc. [incompr.] important.
We also noticed that [incompr.] even during every election there were certain things that occurred. There were shortages, always shortages before election, even when the elections with Chávez, and elections that the party won and that the left won. It seems as if–that something has happened.
And James talked about around the new calculus that is forming in Venezuela and certain–whenever you have changes that happened with the Chavista government, you’re going to have greater expectations among just ordinary people. Their [incompr.] expectations are going to be expectations, as James alluded to, that they now are in power as citizens. They have another relationship with governance and civil society that they hadn’t had before.
So all these are dynamics that certainly are wielded now within this whole process. We have to understand, become vigilant, in terms of the things in our support, of what changes are occurring and what changes continue [incompr.] This may be a process in which we see that the ground could be the fertile ground for even a greater expansion of some of the ideals of President Chávez and the Chavistas. But it also is an opportunity for us to lose ground, really lose ground. I’m not too sure. And James has said how much ground we really lost and what were the other dynamics [incompr.] happened that certainly beyond the political dynamics are going to happen in this restructuring right now, temporary restructuring.
FLETCHER: So we’re dealing with a situation where a conservative has taken over Argentina. We have a right wing in Venezuela, right-wing coalition. We have efforts to move. In fact, some people are calling for a coup in Brazil. Is this coincidence? Is this just bad timing? Or what?
EARLY: No. I think there are a number of objective factors that come into play, but these objective factors should not obscure what may be the errors and the failures on the part of the left. But in terms of the objective factors, when you look at Latin America, one of the most dynamic areas in the world, the most dynamic area in the world that has taken on neoliberalism, privatization, deregulation, lower role of the state in the interests of the people, these governments have redistributed resources towards the poor. They had the highest indices of the reduction of poverty based on the UN millennium goals, which now have been extended to 2030 because they were so significant. But these are export governments. They have the same kind of economies that they had under colonialism. China, which is–been the biggest consumer, the manufacturing heart of the globe now, has turned its model around. Rather than importing, it is producing internally for its own citizens. So it is not buying as much.
The price of oil has dropped tremendously. Oil is now around $31 a barrel, expected go somewhere between $20 and $25 a barrel. The Saudis can produce oil for $8 a barrel. Fracking produces oil for $20-$25 a barrel in the U.S. So oil, in terms of Brazil, Venezuela, the first, the largest oil reserve in the world, it has been devastating. Sixty percent or so of its economy was based on that. And this surplus allowed for lifting people out of poverty. Third-largest oil resource in the world is Brazil. They too are facing this global kind of change, so that the global crisis of capitalism has compounded the failures and errors that left governments have also done. So it’s not coincidental of what’s happening with Dilma Rousseff, the call for–I mean, this is really frightening, this fascist development.
We’re seeing one ripple of that in the United States with Donald Trump and the coddling of him. Notwithstanding some useful criticism from the status quo, it is still a coddling of a fascist who is really basing himself on the fears of a large social base who are feeling these same global effects on the economy. But because of the ultra nationalism here, the United States first, they don’t really have an articulation of what are these global factors going on.
FLETCHER: Well, I was actually going to ask you both about one part of that, something that I’ve been wondering, in that in this situation of country that’s relying so heavily on extractive industries, to what extent were we able to see, whether in Venezuela, Ecuador, or other places, an attempt to re-shift the economy?
GLOVER: Well, I think one of the things–and James has talked about this–one of the [incompr.] still that questions is under these various forms of social democracies, how much can be done, what can be done, as long as power resides in money and capital, and that certainly the question–that that was the major question, what’s attributed to all these economies, whether it’s Venezuela or once in Brazil with all these movements. And these are popular movements from the ground up.
What is attributed to them is the fact that they pull each of those countries out of its kind of deep crisis at the time that certainly the expansion of social services and health care in Venezuela in particular had a major impact on some of the things that we’re talking about in terms of some of the victories of the Chavistas and everything else. Also, we can look at Brazil and say the same thing. Some of the changes happened at that particular moment where it seems that just capital in this sense allowed for its own rescue, allowed for some of these changes to happen.
The question is now in a real sense, in a sense, as that furthered the crisis of capitalism deeper, did they now begin to pull back the reins. And that may be the major question is how much we can get done under the current systems. And so, and as you said, there were no appreciative change in the power structure within this system that exists and that these governments had to operate in.
EARLY: And this is a critical challenge and positive criticism that I think has to be brought to the left, diversification, the dependency on extractive industries. So Correa and Ecuador, one of the most progressive, ran into big problems with indigenous communities and environmentalists because of the continuing move around extractive industries.
Here’s one of the ironies. A report has just come out from the UN that the largest exporter of food, the region that exports more food than any region in the world, is not any longer the United States of America. It’s Latin America. Argentina ranks in the top four or five grain-producing areas of the world, Brazil probably be largest in beef. The question–and Danny used a very good term; we use the term left about socialists. Some of these governments are socialist, like Cuba, like the government of Venezuela, like Nicaragua, like Bolivia. But the economies, save Cuba, are capitalist.
FLETCHER: Do you have any idea as to how Afro-descendent populations, communities voted?
EARLY: Not in this. I don’t have the facts in this recent election. But I do have, as a result of inquiry just four weeks ago, that in every election from ’99, all of the concentrated areas of Afro descendents voted unanimously for the Chávez policies. And we’ll find out more about this recent election, but I don’t have a breakout at this point.
GLOVER: Well, we certainly, when we were involved [incompr.] the 2012–was it 2012 or 2000, the last election? So that President Chávez 2012 election, the first place that we went after the election was to Barlovento. And certainly they were, in a sense, relieved that Chávez had won the presidential election and presented us a demonstration of the work that they have been doing in building their [incompr.] and their co-ops. So, yeah, I mean, I can imagine that they voted heavily in those areas, Afro-descended areas, with the party itself.
EARLY: That despite the fact that there has been constant criticism of government officials called out by name who do not address the issue of Afro descendents. So on the one hand there’s been a unified movement on the part of Afro descendents to support the general direction of 21st century socialism. On the other hand, the government’s function has been inconsistent in addressing the particular needs of these communities. That, unfortunately, is characteristic throughout this hemisphere, including in the United States of America, but very pronounced all over Latin America, including socialist Cuba, in my view, which a lot of people don’t want to face up to, to those issues.
FLETCHER: We’re out of time, so I want to thank you both for taking the time to join us on the show today.
EARLY: Thank you.
GLOVER: Thank you. Thank you.
FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment.
FLETCHER: After the Spanish withdrew from what had been their colony of the Spanish Sahara in 1975, the now Western Sahara was quickly claimed by neighboring countries, specifically Morocco and Mauritania, leaving the Sahrawi people displaced and vulnerable, and in fact ignoring their right to self-determination.
In 1979, Mauritania relinquished its side of the territory and Morocco took claim to the entirety of the Western Sahara without any international support. Today the United Nations recognizes the territory as a non-self-governing territory, calling it Africa’s last colony. Sahrawi rebel liberation movement, known as the Polisario Front, seeks to end Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara.
In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in the hopes to put the Western Sahara’s independence to a vote. But as to today, Morocco refuses to comply with the peace plan that it signed, believing its claim to the land is rooted in history. Moroccan King Mohammed VI told a Spanish newsletter, quote, “Those who are waiting for any other concessions on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves”, unquote.
The international community has not been active in resolving this issue, grouping it with so-called forgotten conflicts.
Today we’re going to look at the latest in the Western Sahara’s quest for liberation. We’re also going to look specifically at the upcoming congress of the Polisario Front, the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people. So stay tuned.
We’re joined for this segment with Dr. Stephen Zunes, who is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as the coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies.
Dr. Zunes, welcome to The Global African.
DR. STEPHEN ZUNES: Great to be with you.
FLETCHER: Or I should say welcome back.
So the liberation movement in the Western Sahara in Northwest Africa is having a congress this month. And it is my understanding that there are major issues facing the congress, including and especially the growing frustration on the actual situation, given that the Moroccans have in effect undermined every effort at self-determination on the part of the Sahrawis since the 1991 ceasefire.
ZUNES: Well, frustrations are indeed mounting. As you mentioned, the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement of Western Sahara, which is recognized as the government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic–this is a nationstate that’s a full member of the African Union and is recognized by more than 80 nations as an independent state, but has nevertheless been occupied by Morocco for over 40 years–they’ve pretty much done everything right in the sense that they have upheld the provisions of the 1991 ceasefire. But Morocco has not gone through with their end of the bargain, that is, that you have a free and fair internationally supervised referendum choosing between independence and some form of integration with the Moroccan kingdom.
There is a younger generation, many of whom have grown up in the refugee camps, as well as people under the brutal Moroccan occupation inside the occupied territory, that are saying, well, since Morocco didn’t go through with their end of the bargain, we should no longer live up to our end of the bargain, which is a suspension of the armed struggle. And while certainly people under colonialism, which is essentially what we’re talking about here, under a foreign belligerent occupation, however you want to word it, do have the legal right–and one could argue the moral right–to armed resistance–.
FLETCHER: You mentioned that the Moroccan state is quite strong. It seems like they’re quite strong in large part because of the backing that they’re getting from France. Is that correct?
ZUNES: Yeah, very much so. They are a former colonial possession of France. They remain in what one could call a neocolonial relationship right now. French business interests are very strong.
I would also say that the United States has–not as much as France, but it has certainly been a strong supporter of Morocco, somewhat less so under the Obama administration. But what we see among both the Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, I think the more ambivalent stance by the Obama administration is going to be supplanted by a more hardline, pro-monarchy perspective after President Obama steps down.
FLETCHER: You know, Professor, one of the things that I’ve tried to understand about the United States and its role in this whole conflict is that the former secretary of state James Baker, from the George H. W. Bush administration, was a mediator in this dispute, and he ended up resigning out of utter frustration about the attitude of the Moroccans. Now, James Baker is about as establishment as they come. I mean, it wasn’t like they sent me over there to mediate. I mean, this is someone from the ruling elite. He is essentially humiliated by the Moroccans. And yet the Moroccans don’t seem to pay any penalty. And I–can you help explain this?
ZUNES: It’s particularly ironic, since James Baker, as the principal attorney during the disputed results in the Florida election in 2000, that he played a major role in allowing George W. Bush to become president, and yet Bush and his administration rejected Baker’s findings on Morocco and Western Sahara, basically continued to back the Moroccan government to the hilt.
And indeed it’s kind of interesting that while you certainly have some liberal Democrats, particularly members of the Black Caucus, that are sympathetic with the right of self-determination, you also have a number of Republicans, some fairly conservative ones, even, that are also sympathetic, from knowing Mr. Baker, who served both as former secretary of state, former secretary of the Treasury, former chief of staff for previous Republican administrations, that there’s actually some bipartisan support for self-determination. There’s also, unfortunately, bipartisan support, more powerful bipartisan support, for the occupation.
I think it comes down to, really, the history of the United States in supporting allied regimes even when they violate basic international norms. We certainly saw this in supporting Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor if you go back a few years, South Africa’s occupation of Namibia, and indeed the Israeli occupation. I’ve always argued it’s not just AIPAC. Unfortunately, the United States has a history of supporting allied countries [that] invade, occupy, colonize, and oppress weaker neighbors. And I think Morocco is just another example of this. We see Morocco initially as a bulwark against the alleged communist threat during the Cold War, and now we see them as a bulwark against the supposed Islam threat.
FLETCHER: Now, you mentioned a minute ago about the Congressional Black Caucus in the United States. And while it is true that some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have spoken in favor of Sahrawi self-determination, this doesn’t appear to be one of their top issues. What do you make of that?
ZUNES: Of course, given some of the districts that most members of the Congressional Black Caucus represent, obviously, they have a lot of priorities in terms of meeting the needs of their constituents in the face of cutbacks in social programs, police violence, and so many of the issues that affect the African-American community. And so, historically, African Americans have not extended–members of Congress have not been involved in, for example, the House Foreign Relations Committee or other foreign policy issues, even if they take a right position much more often on average than most white members of Congress, is not–foreign policy in general has not been a huge priority. And yet, given that Western Sahara is a fairly obscure issue compared to other foreign policy issues, it’s not surprising that it’s even made–been kind of lesser-priority. The late Donald Payne, a congressman from New Jersey, did some very good work on this. He was on the Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee, actually invited me to testify on a number of occasions. I mean, but he died a few years ago, and so far there really hasn’t been anyone else who have really taken the lead since then.
FLETCHER: Dr. Zunes, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of The Global African.
ZUNES: My pleasure.
FLETCHER: And thank for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thank you.
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