One Week After Katrina: How the US responded to a Venezuelan offer of help

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in the midst of disaster, anger, and sadness, it was poignant to hear that the Venezuelan government offered FEMA its humanitarian aid and services, and the use of its oil refineries to help deliver fuel for low-income victims in the U.S., and the aid workers that serve them. (Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez proposed to sell fuel at discounted rates directly to U.S. gas stations if those stations would pass substantial discounts on to customers who could demonstrate low income.) Venezuela also offered just to help out with our oil refinery problem through shifts in their own production.


Venezuela’s government was elected democratically, and models its social policies after Scandinavian countries, but as Chavez’s popularity has increased, there has been a turn toward despotism and the suppression of free speech. In the last seven years Chavez has endured four failed military coup attempts, initiated by oil-industry outsiders. At least one of these was partially funded and planned by the CIA. These attempts were launched ostensibly because Venezuela is socialist; or because is the only country in the world where substantial oil profits are spent directly on the needs of the poor. But they have strengthened Chavez rather than weakened him, and given ample cover for his own anti-democratic tactics.


All of this is quite poigniant now. Although last months’ headlines are buried now, some will remember that Pat Robertson has recently called for the assasination of Chavez. Robertson’s call follows a long tradition of Chavez’ neo-conservative and neo-liberal critics (including Bush, Cheney, Rove, and Kerry), but it’s embarrassing and weird. We aren’t supposed to know when our leaders plan assassinations, because we’re supposed to think our country is a leader of the free community of nations.


But what makes it more remarkable is that while the US was slow to accept post-Katrina aid from Venezuela and other countries in the global south—even though many agencies in those countries have invaluable and rare expertise on tropical storms, disease control, and doing hard work without reliable infrastructure—FEMA meanwhile posted a branch of Pat Robertson’s Christian lobbying organization on a list of its official channels for aid to Katrina’s victims.


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That’s right — “Operation Blessing” was third on the list, right after the Red Cross and Second Harvest. Operation Blessing is a front operation and a tax shelter for a neo-conservative political organization. It has already received over $25 million in federal “faith based” aid under Bush’s programs; now it will get a lot more. And so it becomes clear that some specific ideological boundaries are forming, on the territory of who gets to help whom in the aftermath of American disaster.


Race and the Ideology of Recovery


Today, for the first time, we’re finally getting honesty from NPR and the New York Times about the racial differences between Katrina’s urban ‘victims’ and Katrina’s well-to-do ‘survivors.’ But if NPR was your news source during the week of Katrina, you might have been under the romantic impression that “natural disaster treats rich and poor, or black and white, the same.” But what nature does isn’t quite the point…nature doesn’t create the situation we’re in now: where the rich can evacuate and the poor are immobile. That circumstance is a human invention.


And as stupid as it sounds, some on the mainstream right invented ways of blaming African-Americas for ‘finding themselves in this situation,’ for moving uselessly from bowl-shaped flood zone to dome-shaped war zone, and back, day after morbid day.


But common working Americans are well aware of what was really happening that week in New Orleans, even if the news didn’t always put it together for us. On the one hand, we have small grocery store owners whow were quoted saying, sensibly, that they don’t care about the looting, their merchandise is all “lost anyway” if no one puts it to use…(why waste energy defending private property when it could be spent saving lives?) But on the other, in a revealing moment, an insurance commissioner was begging our police to shoot “all looters,” presumably to kill. (Both of the quotes, but unfortunately not the analysis, come from NYT Friday Sept. 2, 2005 — page A17: “In Hunt for Life’s Necessities, Rumors Fly and Lines Crawl.”)


With eyes pointed further in the future, we also heard neo-conservatives voicing skepticism about whether New Orleans is even worth rebuilding—obviously they were well aware that rich folks would relocate, with big tax-subsidized insurance checks, while the predominantly uninsured black and working-class victims would somehow just be absorbed or dispersed into our nation’s invisible third-world population, like so many mentally ill war veterans or unfunded and child-burdened trade-school dropouts. Other government officials were more neo-liberal in their outlook, pushing to rebuild New Orleans in a business image, and implying, with a nip here and a tuck there, that the old inhabitants of the city were not always welcome to return. Who cares? Nine months later, voters won’t make the connection. Rural and urban poverty in the South are ongoing, inevitable problems, not worth our attention. They are vaguely sad and vaguely forgettable.


Putting the Aid Offers in Context


Recently, when we read about Venezuela, we’re likely to see Venezuelan foreign policy, diplomacy, and national laws discussed as the actions of a single man. Whereas the word “Russia” or “Brazil” might be used in a story about one of those countries’ relationships to international politics, articles about Venezuela will say “Chavez”, and describe Venezuelan actions as the behaviors of a “he”; they will sometimes even describe Venezuela’s oil refineries as “his.” (Given our usual smirk at communists’ use of the title “The People’s…”, isn’t it a little odd that we would more readily describe Venezuelan national property as belonging solely to Chavez, than describe the war machine in Iraq as belonging to Cheney?)


All Chavez’ shortcomings aside, it needs to be said that he represents one of the most legitimately elected (and re-elected) governments in the Western Hemisphere. The article below displays that same sneaky kind of pronoun slip, and it also refers to Chavez’ “authoritarian tendencies” without explaining what exactly those tendencies are.


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Now, there are good reasons to point out that Venezuela’s 7-year old pseudo-socialist government has presided over some corruption and tyranny. Their police have unjustly held political prisoners, and Amnesty International is evaluating reports of torture. Chavez is an authoritarian, and a celebrity ruler, and to his detractors, he is perhaps as dangerous as Cheney is to anti-imperialist activists in the middle east. 


But more often than not, privately owned media corporations use the words “authoritarian tendencies” to describe a vast array of Venezuelan policies, including environmental regulations, tariffs and taxes that fund an amazing and successful education and welfare system, and that helped to nationalize an oil industry according to Venezuelan benefit and clear popular will. Also, Chavez’ many electoral victories have been won primarily on grounds of his success at eliminating the murderous and starkly authoritarian kleptocracy that preceded him. ]


Hope of Solidarity to Come


Chavez is not a hero, but he’s a deft politician. U.S. republicans, along with some democrats, and the bureaucrats in FEMA, have unintentionally contributed to Chavez’ lionized status—deserved or not—as an anti-globalization legend. Neo-liberals have frequently responded to Chavez’ leadership in the company of his increasingly left-leaning neighbor nations, by citing him as an impediment to prosperity and trade. And neo-conservatives seem to want him dead. This sort of language only makes it easier for Chavez to bathe in political celebrity, fashion a Che-Guevarra-like image of himself, and maybe even eventually rise up as a dictator. But because of what Chavez represents, the ignorant U.S. response to his policies has the additional effect of giving even more strength to a growing popular Renaissance toward fighting for real democracy and civil liberties in Latin America. As far as it should concern us, Robertson, FEMA, and the Bush administration have fueled, rather than extinguished, the burning international support for causes on the left.


FEMA needed Venezuela’s help, and so did the people of the U.S. Gulf Coast in September of 2005. But if accepting the aid was too much of a prick to the white pride in the U.S. state department, the failed moment was nevertheless a good starting point for a broadening race and class consciousness, in which black, brown, and other racialized poor communities might start to look at each other across national boundaries—letting collective struggle become an enlightened alternative to patriotism. Maybe the American working class will someday be invigorated to see big oil, big insurance, and right-wing rhetoric as the biggest threats to their safety, and international solidarity as a source of safety, human rights, economic stability, and power. Thanks in part to Chavez’ seven years of democratically supported outreach to Cuba, Brazil, Iran, and China, there is at least a model of solidarity; poor Venezuelans, whose lives are much improved in this decade, have started to see the world in exactly that way. -B.C.