For BBC Television, Greg Palast met several times with Hugo ChÃ¡vez, who passed away yesterday.
As a purgative for the crappola fed to Americans about Chavez, my foundation, The Palast Investigative Fund, is offering the film, The Assassination of Hugo Chavez, as a free download. Based on my several meetings with Chavez, his kidnappers and his would-be assassins, filmed for BBC Television. DVDs also available.
ChÃ¡vez once asked me why the US elite wanted to kill him. My dear Hugo: Itâ€™s the oil. And itâ€™s the Koch Brothers â€“ and itâ€™s the ketchup.
Reverend Pat Robertson said,
â€œHugo Chavez thinks weâ€™re trying to assassinate him. I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.â€
It was 2005 and Robertson was channeling the frustration of George Bushâ€™s State Department. Despite Bushâ€™s providing intelligence, funds and even a note of congratulations to the crew who kidnapped Chavez (weâ€™ll get there), Hugo remained in office, re-elected and wildly popular.
But why the Bush regimeâ€™s hate, hate, hate of the president of Venezuela?
Reverend Pat wasnâ€™t coy about the answer: Itâ€™s the oil.
â€œThis is a dangerous enemy to our South controlling a huge pool of oil.â€
A really big pool of oil. Indeed, according to Guy Caruso, former chief of oil intelligence for the CIA, Venezuela holds a recoverable reserve of 1.36 trillion barrels, that is, a whole lot more than Saudi Arabia.
If we didnâ€™t kill Chavez, weâ€™d have to do an â€œIraqâ€ on his nation. So the Reverend suggests,
â€œWe donâ€™t need another $200 billion warâ€¦.Itâ€™s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.â€
Chavez himself told me he was stunned by Bushâ€™s attacks: Chavez had been quite chummy with Bush Senior and with Bill Clinton.
So what made ChÃ¡vez suddenly â€œa dangerous enemyâ€? Hereâ€™s the answer you wonâ€™t find in The New York Times:
Just after Bushâ€™s inauguration in 2001, Chavezâ€™s congress voted in a new â€œLaw of Hydrocarbons.â€ Henceforward, Exxon, British Petroleum, Shell Oil and Chevron would get to keep 70 percent of the sales revenues from the crude they sucked out of Venezuela. Not bad, considering the price of oil was rising toward $100 a barrel.
But to the oil companies, which had bitch-slapped Venezuelaâ€™s prior government into giving them 84 percent of the sales price, a cut to 70 percent was â€œno bueno.â€ Worse, Venezuela had been charging a joke of a royalty â€“ just 1 percent â€“ on â€œheavyâ€ crude from the Orinoco Basin. Chavez told Exxon and friends theyâ€™d now have to pay 16.6 percent.
Clearly, Chavez had to be taught a lesson about the etiquette of dealings with Big Oil.
On April 11, 2002, President Chavez was kidnapped at gunpoint and flown to an island prison in the Caribbean Sea. On April 12, Pedro Carmona, a business partner of the US oil companies and president of Fedecamaras, the nationâ€™s chamber of commerce, declared himself President of Venezuela â€“ giving a whole new meaning to the term, â€œcorporate takeover.â€
US Ambassador Charles Shapiro immediately rushed down from his hilltop embassy to have his picture taken grinning with the self-proclaimed â€œpresidentâ€ and the leaders of the coup dâ€™Ã©tat.
Bushâ€™s White House spokesman admitted that Chavez was, â€œdemocratically elected,â€ but, he added, â€œLegitimacy is something that is conferred not by just the majority of voters.â€ I see.
With an armed and angry citizenry marching on the presidential palace in Caracas ready to string up the coup plotters, Carmona â€“ the Pretend President from Exxon â€“ returned his captive, Chavez, back to his desk within 48 hours. (How? Get The Assassination of Hugo Chavez, the film that expands on my reports for BBC Television. Itâ€™s free for the next few days atÂ http://www.gregpalast.com/chavezdownload/)Â thanks to the generosity of donors to our foundation.)
Chavez had provoked the coup not just by clawing back some of the bloated royalties of the oil companies. Itâ€™s what he did with that oil money that drove Venezuelaâ€™s 1% to violence.
In Caracas, I ran into the reporter for a TV station whose owner is generally credited with plotting the coup against the president. While doing a publicity photo shoot, leaning back against a tree, showing her wide-open legs nearly up to where they met, the reporter pointed down the hill to the â€œranchos,â€ the slums above Caracas, where shacks, once made of cardboard and tin, where quickly transforming into homes of cinder blocks and cement.
â€œHe [Chavez] gives them bread and bricks, so they vote for him, of course.â€ She was disgusted by â€œthem,â€ the 80 percent of Venezuelans who are negro e indio (black and Indian) â€“ and poor. Chavez, himself negro e indio, had, for the first time in Venezuelaâ€™s history, shifted the oil wealth from the privileged class that called themselves â€œSpanish,â€ to the dark-skinned masses.
While trolling around the poor housing blocks of Caracas, I ran into Arturo Quiran, a local merchant seaman, and no big fan of Chavez. But over a beer at his kitchen table, he told me,
â€œFifteen years ago under [then-President] Carlos AndrÃ©s PÃ©rez, there was a lot of oil money in Venezuela. The â€˜oil boomâ€™ we called it. Here in Venezuela there was a lot of money, but we didnâ€™t see it.â€
But then came Hugo Chavez and now the poor in his neighborhood, â€œget medical attention, free operations, x-rays, medicines; education also,â€ he said. â€œPeople who never knew how to write, now know how to sign their own papers.â€
Chavezâ€™s Robin Hood thing, shifting oil money from the rich to the poor, would have been grudgingly tolerated by the US. But Chavez, who told me, â€œWe are no longer an oil colony,â€ went further â€“ too much further, in the eyes of the American corporate elite.
Venezuela had landless citizens by the millions â€“ and unused land by the millions of acres tied up, untilled, on which a tiny elite of plantation owners squatted. Chavezâ€™s congress passed a law in 2001 requiring untilled land to be sold to the landless. It was a program long promised by Venezuelaâ€™s politicians at the urging of John F. Kennedy as part of his â€œAlliance for Progress.â€
Plantation owner Heinz Corporation didnâ€™t like that one bit. In retaliation, Heinz closed its ketchup plant in the state of Maturin and fired all the workers. Chavez seized the Heinz plant and put the workers back on the job. Chavez didnâ€™t realize that heâ€™d just squeezed the tomatoes of Americaâ€™s powerful Heinz family and Mrs. Heinzâ€™ husband, Sen. John Kerry, now US Secretary of State.
Or, knowing Chavez as I do, he didnâ€™t give a damn.
Chavez could survive the ketchup coup, the Exxon â€œpresidency,â€ even his taking back a piece of the windfall of oil company profits, but he dangerously tried the patience of Americaâ€™s least-forgiving billionaires: the Koch Brothers.
How? Well, thatâ€™s another story for another day. [Watch this space. Or read about it in the book, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits. Go toÂ www.BallotBandits.org).
Elected presidents who annoy Big Oil have ended up in exile â€“ or coffins: Mossadegh of Iran after he nationalized BPâ€™s fields (1953), Elchibey, president of Azerbaijan, after he refused demands of BP for his Caspian fields (1993), President Alfredo Palacio of Ecuador after he terminated Occidentalâ€™s drilling concession (2005).
â€œItâ€™s a chess game, Mr. Palast,â€ Chavez told me. He was showing me a very long and very sharp sword once owned by Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator. â€œAnd I am,â€ Chavez said, â€œa very good chess player.â€
In the film The Seventh Seal, a medieval knight bets his life on a game of chess with the Grim Reaper. Death cheats, of course, and takes the knight. No mortal can indefinitely outplay Death who, this week, Chavez must know, will checkmate the new Bolivar of Venezuela.
But in one last move, the Bolivarian grandmaster plays a brilliant endgame, naming Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, as good and decent a man as they come, as heir to the fight for those in the â€œranchos.â€ The 1% of Venezuela, planning on Chavezâ€™s death to return them the power and riches they couldnâ€™t win in an election, are livid with the choice of Maduro.
Chavez sent Maduro to meet me in my downtown New York office back in 2004. In our run-down detective digs on Second Avenue, Maduro and I traded information on assassination plots and oil policy.
Even then, Chavez was carefully preparing for the day when Venezuelaâ€™s negros e indios would lose their king â€“ but still stay in the game.
Class war on a chessboard. Even in death, I wouldnâ€™t bet against Hugo Chavez.