Too Perfect to be True

February 9, 2011

Patrol uniforms ‘made in Mexico’
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Washington Times

New Border Patrol uniforms, ordered in the wake of the agency’s transfer last year to the Department of Homeland Security, arrived this month and some agents are not very happy: The new uniforms were “Made in Mexico.”

“I’m embarrassed, not only as a Border Patrol agent but as an American citizen, that our government has decided to outsource the production of these uniforms with no regard for the safety of the process or the security of our country,” said Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) Local 1613 in San Diego.

“What system is in place to ensure that these uniforms are not stolen en masse or sold outright in Mexico to be used by terrorists, alien smugglers or drug dealers who could cross unimpeded into the United States?” asked Mr. Dassaro, a veteran agent.

More than $30 million in new uniforms have been ordered for the Border Patrol by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a new agency within Homeland Security that now oversees the border force. Homeland Security was created in March 2003 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.

“It’s certainly not uncommon for cargo to be hijacked in Mexico, particularly in the many staging areas along the border, and the potential theft of these uniforms by the truckloads could become a major problem,” Mr. Dassaro said.

Patricia Todaro, CBP’s director of logistics, said the agency purchases new uniforms, along with jackets, shoes, hats and other equipment, from those suppliers from whom the government can obtain the best possible value for the taxpayer’s dollar.

“Our contracts allow us to seek out the best value for the government and that means we use vendors who might not be located in the United States,” Mrs. Todaro said. “In the end, we end up getting the best price and the best value.”

But T.J. Bonner, president of the NBPC, which represents all 11,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol agents nationwide, noted that in addition to many unanswered questions concerning security issues regarding the Mexican-produced uniforms, there are concerns by field agents on why the cost of the new uniforms are rising if the government is saving money.

Mr. Bonner, in Washington today to testify before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, noted that a $500-a-year uniform allowance paid to the field agents has not been increased while the cost of their basic gear, including $27 shirts and $32 trousers, has gone up as much as 10 percent.

“They say they’re saving money,” Mr. Bonner said. “If they are, none of those savings are being passed on to us. I think this is just the wrong thing to do; it’s the wrong message to send.”

The new uniforms were supplied through a contract with VF Solutions of Nashville, Tenn., which agreed to produce 30,000 shirts and pants for CBP agents and inspectors for the 2003-04 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But the contract allows the company to subcontract its work to other facilities in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

Officials at VF Solutions did not return calls yesterday for comment. The firm is a part of VF Corp., the world’s largest apparel company with 60,000 employees in 22 countries.

Mr. Bonner and Mr. Dassaro, based on complaints from field agents, said there also appeared to be quality concerns in the new Mexican-made uniforms, particularly shirts that are less durable and orders that often are undersized and have to be returned.

The Border Patrol, before the merger with Homeland Security, used to get shirts under a Justice Department contract with Fechheimer Bros. Co. in Cincinnati, the largest manufacturer of public- safety uniforms in the United States. The Border Patrol wore the company’s Flying Cross brand deluxe tropical shirts for many years.
Fechheimer still supplies other federal agencies with made-in-the-U.S.A. shirts — some through VF Solutions.

“We could have been supplied with quality shirts and trousers, even through VF,” said Mr. Bonner. “Instead, they sent tax dollars to Mexico in an effort to realize more corporate profits at the expense of the agents.”

The Border Patrol has worn dark-green uniforms since the agency was created in 1924 and vigorously fought with Homeland Security officials to keep them when other uniforms were being suggested.


It’s Worse Than You Thought

February 11, 2009

I got this in an email Thursday. All the text is below. It’s only half surprising.

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – Two judges pleaded guilty on Thursday to accepting more than $2.6 million from a private youth detention center in Pennsylvania in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers long sentences.

Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, entered plea agreements in federal court in Scranton admitting that they took payoffs from PA Childcare and a sister company, Western PA Childcare, between 2003 and 2006. Read the rest of this entry »

Property Wrongs

January 21, 2009

Previously published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why was the owner of a long-dormant vacant lot so upset to see it sprout a community garden?

For decades the narrow strip of land at the corner of Fulton and Stanyan streets in the Inner Richmond sat abandoned, accumulating weeds and trash. At some point in the distant past, neighbors say, it had been a nice lawn, but no one remembers exactly when that was.

“I walk past it every morning,” 75-year-old Kathleen Russell, who has lived in an apartment overlooking the lot for 34 years, told the Guardian. “I kept hoping somebody would put a lawn in or something, something that was pretty. But it was just left vacant and unattended.”

Last year the Department of Public Works posted a sign declaring the vacant land blighted after receiving repeated complaints. Then in January a small group of neighbors began transforming the lot into a community garden. They cleaned up the garbage, cut down the weeds, and planted vegetables. Soon after, the DPW sign disappeared and was replaced by fava beans, garlic, and lettuce.

Justin Valone, who lives down the street from the piece of land, helped initiate the garden. “The response from the community has been amazing,” he told us enthusiastically. “We’ve had nothing but support from neighbors. It’s been a real catalyst for getting to know everyone in the neighborhood.”

Only one person seems to take issue with the project: the landowner. While visiting San Francisco from her out-of-town home, Aileen O’Driscoll discovered the guerrilla garden on her property and was less than thrilled. She also found neighbors using a hose from her building to water the plot without permission. O’Driscoll told Citywide Property Management, which takes care of the lot and the adjacent apartment building, that she wanted them off her land. She refused to speak to the gardeners directly and did not respond to our inquiries.

Carol Cosgrove, co-owner of Citywide, has been responsible for returning the lot to its unkempt state. “I think beautification of the city is important. I agree with it completely, but I think that personal property and private property is still important,” she told us. “Instead of taking something aggressively and taking the water and not even bothering to seek out who the owner is and ask permission or to give a proposal to, this could have been done more responsibly.”

Citywide got in touch with Valone and told him to stop using its water (which he did) and to remove the plants (which he didn’t). In response, gardeners began trying to generate broader support for the garden. They went door-to-door with a petition. Some neighbors asked Citywide to leave the plants alone.

Still O’Driscoll refused to talk. The San Francisco Parks Trust contacted the property managers to show there is organizational support for the garden. District Supervisor Jake McGoldrick’s office called too, offering to help mediate a deal between the two groups. The gardeners even agreed to lease the unused land. Citywide says it has presented the case to the owner many times, but O’Driscoll won’t budge and won’t offer an explanation.

“I can’t really speak for her, but she doesn’t want the garden there right now,” Cosgrove said.

Gardeners are frustrated by her unwillingness to talk to them. “We could address her specific concerns, but without knowing what they are, we can’t do anything,” says Becky Sutton, another garden organizer.

When they felt negotiations were going nowhere, garden supporters began holding a constant vigil at the lot, hoping for the chance to speak to the landowner directly. Groups of friends and neighbors stayed by the garden for days, talking to passersby and getting more signatures on the petition. Currently they have more than 300.

The benefits of the garden would extend beyond the 1,300-square-foot plot, advocates assert. “Green space in San Francisco is very valuable to all residents,” said Jude Koski, director of the San Francisco Garden Resource Organization (SFGRO), a local community gardening organization that is willing to help broker a deal over the land. “It is a wonderful way to engage the community. It’s an opportunity for people to come together who wouldn’t otherwise be coming together.” According to a 2004 survey by the Recreation and Park Department, 47 percent of San Franciscans would like to see more community gardens in the city.

The two sides have reached something of an impasse: O’Driscoll wants the garden gone, Citywide says it has no choice but to follow her orders, and the gardeners don’t want the lot to go back to dirt and weeds.

But even if they lose this lot, the gardeners see the fight as ongoing. “We want to see this garden not just be bound by the concrete that is all around it but be something that will inspire people and help them know they can utilize vacant land in their neighborhoods,” Valone said. “People can take responsibility for beautifying and creating important and useful resources for themselves and their neighbors in the space around them. Whether you’re a renter, whether you own land or not, you can still take responsibility for land and utilize it.”

Previously published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Tuesday April 25, 2006

A few weeks before Marisa Garcia started her first semester of college in 2000, a cop found a pipe with marijuana residue in her car. The pipe was hers, so she fessed up, went to court, paid her fine, and thought the case was closed.

Soon after, Garcia, the daughter of a single mother with three other college-age children, lost the financial aid she’d been counting on to cover her tuition costs at Cal State Fullerton. She called her school and found out it was because of the drug charge: The Higher Education Act makes students with a drug conviction ineligible for financial aid. Garcia had never heard of the law before.

She’s not alone in her predicament. A study by the reform group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, released April 17, found that more than 180,000 students have lost or been denied financial aid under this law since it went into effect in 2000. California has had the highest number of students affected: a startling 31,000. The group hopes the overall numbers will spur Congress to repeal the law.

The law is intended to be a deterrent to drug use, but critics question its effectiveness. “Most people don’t find out about it until it’s too late,” Tom Angell, campaign director for SSDP, said. “If kids are thinking about using drugs, they’re supposed to say, ‘No, I could lose my aid.’ But not a lot of people know about it until they come across it on their financial aid form.”

Since Garcia lost her aid, the act has been amended to apply only to students who get busted while receiving financial assistance. But that doesn’t fully address the concerns of its critics, who see it as counterproductive.

“[The law] affects the very students whom the Higher Education Act was intended to assist in the first place when it was passed in 1965: the students from low- and middle-income families, the ones who cannot afford college tuition on their own,” Angell said. “These are the people who, when they get a conviction and lose their financial aid, are forced to drop out.”

Critics also contend that those punished for using drugs shouldn’t be penalized a second time for that same crime. “If you break the law, there is a system of justice that is designed to deal with you,” said Tom Kaley, spokesperson for Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee, who supports the repeal of the law. “But then to have the Department of Education add another punch on top of that sounds a lot like double jeopardy.”

That issue and others prompted the SSDP and the American Civil Liberties Union to file a federal class-action lawsuit March 22 seeking to overturn the law. That suit, in combination with the study, seeks to highlight how damaging the law has been.

“Now all members of Congress know exactly how many of their own constituents are devastated by the policy,” Angell said. “They’re not going to be able to keep ignoring it year after year while tens of thousands of students lose financial aid. They’re going to have to do something about it.”

Originally published in Fault Lines, March/April 2007

When Jeff Englehart, Thomas Cassidy, and Joe Hatcher joined the Army in early 2001 they were looking for a change of pace and some college money. A few months later, however, the Twin Towers were smoldering, the ‘war on terror’ was growing from their ashes, and what it meant to be a US soldier was changed dramatically. They three strangers met in the Army and soon found themselves stationed in Iraq, where they served in and around the violent Sunni Triangle from February 2004 until February 2005.

In addition to the ways of war, the Army taught them a lot about power, militarism, capitalism, and resistance. This rapid politicization left the three fighting on behalf of a government they didn’t believe in with little choice but to just wait for their three-year enlistments to be over. While still in Iraq, Englehart and Hatcher joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW); Cassidy followed suit soon after returning. Now they are tireless anti-war activists, dedicated full time to sharing their stories and ending all US aggression abroad. Fault Lines talked with them about their time in Iraq and their work since when they stopped in Berkeley as part of a recent West Coast mini-tour.

FL: I know that you’re very politically engaged right now. But what kind of political awareness did you have when you joined the Army?

JE: Absolutely none. If I’d had any political awareness I wouldn’t have even considered putting on the uniform of a United States soldier. My political education didn’t come until I got to my unit. Basically what I realized real quick was I didn’t like the army for its authority and its authoritative structure and I learned real quick what can happen when you’re placed in a situation when authority is rampant and it’s in the hands of irresponsible people. I started reading books that were in opposition to what the military was doing across the globe—books like Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, things of that nature. Before I even got to Iraq I was aware of what was happening in the world just from reading these great books. But when you’re tied to a system that governs you and rules you by fear, and the punishment for speaking out or acting against the grain can be jail, that fear over your head kept me in line enough to go to Iraq.

FL: How did this politicization affect your relationship to other soldiers?

TC: The ones that were pro-military, obviously, it created a negative response in our relationships with them. The ones that were on the fence we tried to convince to come to our side. The thing about the military is that anyone who is very negative about the military, who is anti-military, it’s hard to figure out who these people are. You might be sitting across the table from a guy who hates the military just as much as you, basically for the same reasons as you, and never know it. You kind of have to hide that, you know, almost keep your hatred of the military in the closet because if you let it out you’re just going to be subject to more stupid shit. When we did find the more anti people we’d try to bring them into our circle of trust.

JE: We were always trying to resist the Army any way we could without getting in trouble.

FL: What can you do to resist when you’re there?

JE: In Iraq that’s a really tough question.

TC: There’s a very fine line between resisting and being…

JH: …in jail.

TC: …punished.

JE: …held up on treason charges or sedition. We ran a website while we were in Iraq, it was an anti-war blog, at times very anti-government []. We never once compromised any kind of operational security, never once broke any kind of Army law. Still, they were talking about court-martialing us because we had said some bad things about the president and because we questioned the intentions of the mission.

FL: So then it was just waiting out your time?

JE: That’s pretty much what we had to do. My sergeant could tell that I was angry about it. He told me, ‘Look, I know you probably don’t want to be involved in this war and there’s a lot of people who feel the way you do. But they just put their head down and they get through it. Really there’s only two ways for you to get out of this mess: one, in a body bag, or two, in handcuffs.’ And he was totally right.

FL: How have civilians interacted with you since you’ve been back?

JE: Well until you express that you’re against the war and you hate the president for what he’s done to you and your friends and the whole entire planet, they typically treat you like a hero. But then again there’s been a shift in the almost two years since I’ve been out of the Army and got back home. We’ve been very vocal between us three in our opposition to the war since we’ve been out. Whereas two years ago it was like, ‘I think you guys are traitors, I respect your freedom of speech but I think you’re wrong.’ Compare that to today where people are like, ‘You’re totally right, we need to get those troops home.’

FL: How do you feel that you are different from other anti-war activists?

JE: I think that maybe veterans have a little more clout, in a sense. Any movement in American history has been greatly influenced by veterans of any war. Look at Vietnam for instance and the Vietnam era. Had it not been for veterans, had it not been for soldiers in ranks actually shutting down the war machine—soldiers in revolt, basically—had it not been for them, that war might have continued for another ten years.

FL: What has been IVAW’s approach to ending the war? What do you think is necessary?

JE: There is a huge disconnect in this country in the fact that 1.5 percent of this country has fought in the ‘war on terror.’ Roughly one and a half million soldiers. I’d say apathy is still a huge part of what’s going on, what’s the problem with the movement. Not the people in the movement itself, but where’s the support for this kind of sentiment going to come from? I don’t know, maybe until it reaches more everyday-Americans’ lives that this war is going to be devastating for us all. I’ve heard some advice from some guys I know who were in the civil rights movement and they were involved in anti-war activism in the 60s. They’ve been harping on me to get it out there, to let it be known that we need to reach out to the soldiers themselves. If you know a National Guard base near your house, you need to go out and actually meet these people and tell them, ‘Hey, we support you. We understand there’s a difference between supporting the war and supporting the troops and we’re telling you right now we oppose the war and support the troops.’ We need to reach these soldiers and help them in any way we can. I think right now there’s probably a lot of soldiers who feel they’re on the margins, they’re the only ones who are dealing with this. What was that story about the PFC?

JH: There was a private first class and he was set to deploy for what I believe was his third time and the colonel was giving this speech. He made a comment about America being at war. And a younger soldier, a PFC or private, stood up in the audience and said, ‘Sir, America’s not at war. America’s army is at war. America’s at the mall.’

JE: That says it all right there.

JH: It’s not like World War II. There’s not any strains on the economy. There’s not any rations here at home.

JE: It seems to me that there’s a lot of people who oppose the war but not the reasons these wars are fought. Once we can end the reasons these wars are fought, which is basically for corporate profit, will we ever stop this war, will we ever stop the next war. We as citizens of this country, and as a world movement even, have to come to terms that the current system of capitalism is probably the cause, and will continue to be the cause, of these wars and poverty worldwide.

TC: We stopped the Vietnam War but we didn’t stop the reasons it was created.

JE: Exactly.

TC: We keep just treating the symptoms, as a doctor would say, and not treating the actual disease.

JE: War in the 20th and 21st centuries is like a malignant cancer that just keep coming back. I think most people feel uncomfortable when we say, ‘Perhaps your very lifestyle is the reason why these wars are being fought,’ but maybe it’s true. The reason these wars are fought is for corporate profit and for the exploitation of natural resources in another country.

TC: You might no longer be able to buy Nikes if we actually end the reason the wars are created. And that’s the problem: people like their fucking Nikes too much.

FL: What does your activism look like?

TC: A little bit of everything. Protests, rallies, marches, speaking out. Our tour bus, going around the country, getting the word out. One of the biggest challenges for the new anti-war movement and the new generation of leftist activists is to get the yuppie population, the middle class, middle-aged people who used to be the hippies in the 60s and early 70s…to get them to go back and start believing in the things they believed in 30, 40 years ago. Things they gave up on and went and bought their white picket fence and got their wife and their 2.5 kids and their dog named Flipper. Cash out the Roth-IRA, get your money out of the stocks, and fight for what you believe in. Stop funding this. Stop making money off of corruption and slavery and all these other causes.

FL: What if these people you’re talking about don’t believe in anything?

TC: Then they’re a lucky bunch. I think that nihilism is a thing that only exists in the privileged. People that don’t have anything—they believe in something.

JH: Sick, starving people don’t start wars.

JE: The Group of 8 starts wars.

FL: Where do you see the war going?

TC: It’s obvious it’s going downhill. Sixty percent of Americans are opposed to war in Iraq, the occupation of Iraq. It’s obvious that the anti-war movement and the resistance movement is gaining steam. Now the thing is, without a doubt this war’s going to be ended very soon. I’m not saying in the next few months, but in the next few years. The thing is after it’s ended to not give up and say, oh, we won, cause we haven’t won—we still have troops in Afghanistan, and troops in Germany still from World War II.

JE: Victory would be the withdrawal of America from the Middle East, and that includes Afghanistan, that includes Iraq, that includes even North Korea.

TC: The Department of Defense, if it should even exist, should only exist to as a department of defense. Mother Nature attacked New Orleans and we had no sort of defense against that. Your guns aren’t going to help fight the hurricanes that are killing poor people.

JE: I think we’re passed the arguing point as to whether or not to withdraw troops. I think the idea of troop withdrawal is an inevitability at this point.

TC: It’s just how. And when.

JE: How much longer are we going to allow our soldiers to die, Iraqis to die? How much longer are we going to pollute Iraq with depleted uranium? How much longer are we going to keep sweeping our veterans under the rug? We’ll never defeat this popular insurrection because most empires don’t. It wasn’t that long ago that the Iraqis kicked out the British. Some of their great-grandparents over there in Iraq, if they’re still alive, they still remember British occupation. They successfully ousted the British in the 20s.

TC: Why should we be any different?

JE: They’ll do it to us in 2007.

FL: How has all of this changed the way you think about war, and government, and politics?

JH: I think it hasn’t really changed much as much as fucking enforced everything.

JE: I think the one thing that this war has proven to me is that we’re fucked. We have a one-party system that’s making all of our decisions. And they’re subservient to corporations. That’s a hell of a barrier to break through. It doesn’t make sense to vote for either candidate anymore, but what to do? People will say vote for the lesser of two evils.

JH: Voting for the lesser of two evils isn’t voting.

JE: It seems to me that the politicians in Washington, DC, are history’s best puppet government. They’re totally in tow to the capitalist regime, the corporations, the corporatocracy—they’re all in bed with each other.

FL: Do you think the big anti-war marches are worth putting energy into?

JE: Oh absolutely. People power is always worth putting something into.

TC: I think that it doesn’t really create much when it comes to lawmakers, but it gets more people to notice, like, ‘Wow, this is gaining steam, and this is something I agree with. Maybe I should get up off my ass and help out.’

JE: Look at what last May Day did for immigration—it didn’t essentially solve a problem overnight, but…

TC: And it’s all those rights marches that happened prior to that, in the past few years before that that created such a fervor for that. Eventually our D-Day will come and anti-war marches will be like May Day was last year.

JE: People power is a very real thing. The more people that are interested in it, the better. I can tell you that since I’ve been out of the Army, I’ve definitely seen a rising undercurrent of people who are getting interested and getting involved. Maybe it’s time to come out of the woodwork again and get back in the game.

JH: And the high school kids coming up are pissed too. We just spoke at a high school a couple of days ago and we had a 17-year-old senior ask us if he was going to be the first one drafted for Iran. We need to get the burned out hippies and the rich white men and the kids and the minorities, we need to quit playing into our differences and we need to work together to overcome this.

Refining Power

January 11, 2009

Originally published in Earth Island Journal, Spring 2006

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez builds new alliances with oil

In this fossil fuel-driven global economy, oil means power. Every country relies on oil to some extent these days, leaving them all at the mercy of their suppliers. It’s geopolitical heroin – it might be destroying us, but no one can get enough. Oil is a leveraging point, a fulcrum on which economic stability balances, and as the world’s supplies dwindle this will more frequently be the case.

Oil is qualitatively different from other key natural resources that have been the engines of wars and empires. It is both a tool and a commodity – the spice trade was lucrative, but you can’t run a factory off pepper. Record high prices have given oil-rich countries a new-found power and autonomy previously unachievable outside of the North – you can’t embargo a country that has something you desperately need. This power is beginning to make the traditional elites nervous.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is keenly aware of the power his country’s oil supply gives him. Though high oil prices are a blessing for Venezuela, they are a curse for other countries in Latin America that must pay whatever necessary to import the oil they need. To fill the gap left by this disparity in fortune, Chavez is using both his oil and profits to build strategic alliances with nations ranging from his neighbors to China. Often viewed as something a country can wield destructively, could oil also be something a country could use in a constructive fashion?

Last March, Chavez spoke before a packed stadium in Calcutta, India. “The 19th and the 20th centuries belonged to Europe and [North] America, but this century belongs to Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” he told a boisterous crowd. “If we can unite we can be the strongest power in the world.” Oil has enabled Chavez to pursue this vision of the future and make it a possibility.

A lot has changed in Venezuela in the last few years. Since 2002, more than one and a half million adults have learned to read, making Venezuela the first country in South America to rid itself of illiteracy. Millions more people – many of them residents of Caracas’s destitute slums – have received free health care in the thousands of new state-funded neighborhood clinics. Forty percent of the population now gets government-subsidized food.

At the same time, Venezuela has undergone dramatic economic expansion. In 2004, the economy grew by over 17 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. Further growth was demonstrated in the first half of this year. According to the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, the GDP is poised to continue rising for at least the next three years.

The driving force behind this social and economic development in Venezuela is the surging global price of oil, which has allowed the government to allocate billions of dollars to fund Chavez’s “Missions” – the name he has given his domestic campaigns – while still maintaining huge trade and budget surpluses. As the planet’s fifth-largest oil producer, Venezuela has benefited immensely from the world-wide energy crisis that has so negatively affected buyers – from the level of individual car drivers all the way up to struggling national economies – and is now awash in profits it has never seen before.

This new money has enabled Venezuela to look beyond its borders and share the wealth with other countries in the region. In June, Chavez announced the creation of PetroCaribe, an agreement that allows participating countries to pay a portion of the price for Venezuelan oil up front and finance the rest at very low interest rates. Additionally, countries can “pay” for the oil with goods and services. Cuba, for example, provides Venezuela with doctors and teachers in return for fuel; many of them have been instrumental in Venezuela’s health and literacy campaigns. All but two countries in the region have signed on to the deal.

In the last year, Venezuela has made plans with other countries in Latin America as well. Paraguay now receives discounted oil while Uruguay exchanges goods for much of its Venezuelan oil imports. Argentina exchanges shipbuilding expertise and farm machinery for oil, and joined forces with PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, to buy a refinery and open two gas stations in Buenos Aires. Hundreds more are planned around the country. Brazil partnered with PDVSA to build a $2.5 billion refinery within its borders. Additionally, the two countries announced plans for a joint venture that will allow Brazil to drill for oil in Venezuela.

Even more unconventionally, Chavez had publicized plans to supply certain low-income communities in the United States with discounted fuel as winter sets in. CITGO, a subsidiary of PDVSA, announced November 22 it will distribute twelve million gallons of heating oil through nonprofit groups to poor households in Boston for 60 to 80 cents below market value. Two and a half weeks later a similar program began in the Bronx, and more are being considered for Chicago and some Native American communities.

Venezuela has taken its oil offerings outside of the western hemisphere. In the last year, Chavez has met and negotiated deals with political leaders from China, India, and Russia, homes to three of the fastest growing economies in the world. Each country now has limited rights to explore and drill for oil inside Venezuela’s Orinoco belt. Venezuela also announced plans to increase oil exports to China five-fold.

Conspicuously absent from these deals are North America and Europe, and it’s no accident. Chavez has made it quite clear that he intends to use the money and power high oil prices have given him to build alliances, both in Latin America and in the rest of the world, that are counter to the traditional geopolitical power blocs.

While Venezuela’s agreements with other countries center around oil, oil is just the beginning. “The goal is in no small part to try and put together some sort of coalition that will stand by Venezuela rather than the United States,” says Vinay Jawahar of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, DC. “In that sense, it’s to try to create a bloc of countries that furthers Venezuela’s interests rather than US interests in the region.”

Predictably, this is a troubling prospect to the United States government, traditionally the dominant force within the region. In his opening statement at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in November 2005, Committee Chairman Richard Lugar noted that: “Massive infusions of oil revenue distort regional politics and can embolden leaders hostile to US interests… Increasingly, oil is the currency through which countries leverage their interests against oil dependent nations such as ours. Oil is not just another commodity.” Lugar cited Venezuela as an example of one of these nations.

Chavez is an extremely outspoken critic of Washington, especially on the issue of free trade, which he often equates to a form of imperialism. “As Chavez sees it, this is really about solidarity,” says Jawahar. “Basically, what he thinks would be in Venezuela’s interest is to put together a bloc of countries that could, for instance, oppose the US on something like trade, which he thinks Latin America has traditionally gotten a raw deal out of. This way, they can come together and stand up for their own interests rather than having to accept whatever Washington foists upon them. He sees it as being a way to stand up to the power in the region.”

The Summit of the Americas in November 2005 was a clear manifestation of Chavez’s attempts to build support for his vision of Latin America. The meeting of the heads of the 34 countries in the hemisphere (Cuba was excluded) turned into a referendum on the US-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would more or less extend NAFTA all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In the end, Venezuela and four other countries voted against the agreement: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Interestingly, each of these countries has inked oil deals with Chavez.

“Venezuela has used its oil to bring more countries into the fold of what it sees as an alternative to a US-driven integration process,” says Teo Ballve, editor of the North American Congress on Latin America. “[Chavez has] used his oil wealth to offer these countries that are sort of teetering between the US and, for lack of a better word, the anti-US position, [an alternative], to bring them over to Venezuela’s side.”

There are practical limits on the power of Chavez’s oil diplomacy, however. Oil revenue comprises the vast majority of the Venezuelan economy, and the United States is the largest buyer of Venezuelan oil – which constitutes 12 percent of US imports. “There’s an umbilical cord that works in both directions,” says Larry Goldstein, president of PIRA Energy Group, an international energy-consulting firm. “There’s a symbiotic relationship, like it or not. We need them and they need us, for the moment.”

Proximity is a key factor that would make it expensive for Chavez to shift all his exports away from the US. Additionally, Venezuela produces a type of crude oil that only certain refineries can process, most of which are in the United States. “I don’t think they could start shipping oil elsewhere quickly in the short term,” observes Linda Giesecke, oil analyst for Energy Security Analysis, Inc. “But I think in the long term, Chavez does hope to reduce this dependency on the US as one of his main export markets.”

That Venezuela has its hands tied by geography is precisely the reason Chavez is aggressively pursuing the development of regional markets and cooperation. Many of the agreements he’s made with neighboring countries involve the construction of refineries so processing can be done in-country. “The entire Global South is part of an emerging market for Venezuelan oil,” says Eric Wingerter at the Venezuela Information Office. “The ultimate goal is not just charity or giving these things away to these other countries, but a real economic interdependence in the region.”

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, echoes this idea: “He has this vision of Latin America being more independent, more integrated economically, less dependent and subject to the political directives of the United States.”

To further this goal, Chavez has put forward other, as yet undeveloped initiatives that would more deeply unite the region. He has plans for PetroAmerica, an agreement similar to PetroCaribe that would extend to all of Latin America. ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, was unveiled last year as a proposed substitute for the FTAA. The South American Community of Nations formed last December and aspires to emulate the European Union. Chavez also suggested the formation of a regional development bank to fund projects on the continent that could, over time, include nations from Asia and Africa as well.

While Chavez may be the loudest proponent of such regional integration, he is not alone in his dissatisfaction with the role of the United States in Latin America. “Part of the reason Chavez has struck a chord in the region is the whole region is moving in a certain direction,” Weisbrot observes.

Since 2000, four other Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Ecuador – have voted left-leaning presidents into office. In Chile, socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet won a plurality of votes, falling just short of the majority needed to take office. A runoff was scheduled for January 15. In Newsweek, Joseph Contreras and Phil Gunson wrote that this has been “a way of registering anger and disenchantment with the alleged failures of the Washington-backed free trade economic policies that so many leaders embraced during the 1990s.”

What’s more, 11 elections are coming up in the next year in the region, and Washington is worried Chavez’s influence will skew the results. In Bolivia, Nicaragua, and possibly Mexico, leftist candidates that may ally themselves with Chavez have a chance of winning.

Yet Chavez’s oil diplomacy can’t last forever – just as fluctuating oil prices made it possible, another change would challenge many of his initiatives. Much of his support, both domestically and regionally, derives from his social spending and oil deals. While he may have the upper hand at the moment, Chavez is engaged in a race to get as much as he can out of what he has now.

“He’s taking advantage of the window he’s got,” says Wingerter. “Prices are not going to be this high forever. So a lot of the spending right now is… sort of the overhead that goes into building all of these new schools, building all of these health clinics, establishing some of these trade relationships, while the economy is stronger than it ever has been.” Once the foundations are laid, the cost of maintaining these programs should be lower, Wingerter suggests.

But this groundwork is currently incomplete. More generally, the overall sustainability of Chavez’s projects is questionable. According to Dr. Julia Buxton, a research fellow at the University of Bradford in the UK, one of Chavez’s original intentions when coming to office was to reduce Venezuela’s dependence on oil by using oil revenue to diversify the economy. Venezuela is still taking steps towards diversification by emphasizing industrialization and agriculture, but now, she contends, “This dependence has been increased as a result of the reliance on petroleum export revenues for public spending (specifically the Missions) and foreign policy.”

There is also speculation that Venezuela’s oil industry is suffering. Chavez unilaterally raised royalty rates on oil operations and changed the terms under which foreign companies may function within the country, creating a new element of instability for these companies. This uncertainty discourages much-needed foreign investment in the oil industry. “Long term, PDVSA will pay a price,” predicts PIRA Energy Group’s Goldstein. “Venezuela needs a substantial amount of new investment, not only to grow, but just to maintain their existing production…There’s no doubt the investment flow is slower than it would otherwise be and producuction is substantially lower than it would otherwise have been.”

Oil has enabled Venezuela to establish relationships that are materially very beneficial to the countries on the other end of the deal – who would turn down subsidized oil? The ultimate hope, it seems, is that the relationships will be strong enough that when the oil runs low, the countries will still be able and willing to move forward on the regional cooperation. “It’s part of a larger plan to really integrate the economic development of the Caribbean region within South America,” says Wingerter. “It’s not just a wealthy country giving away resources to countries that are needier – there’s a real exchange of goods going on.”

The ideas of regional cooperation and resource sharing in Latin America are not new ones. Trade alliances like MERCOSUR in the Southern Cone and CAN in the Andes have existed for years, though each has met with variable degrees of success. Venezuela and Mexico, the only oil exporters in the region, have been providing discounted fuel to some of their neighbors since 1980. But Chavez is now attempting to combine the two and create a solid, unified Latin America that can stand on its own.

Chavez’s goals are ambitious and the ultimate feasibility debatable. But his willingness to stand up to the United States may have a lasting effect on a region already beginning to assert itself more firmly. “One thing that I think is changing in Latin America that’s never going to go back, that I think Venezuela has really helped push forward, is this idea of sovereignty, the sort of inherent equality between nations,” Wingerter continues. “I think that’s one of the things that’s really scaring the Bush administration. The people in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, for the first time are saying, ‘Wait a second, we can make these decisions for ourselves, we don’t always have to look to the North for approval.’”

Dr. Buxton agrees: “I think it impacts on the rest of the world in terms of the emphasis on sovereignty and autonomy – imagine if the Iraqis, Saudis, etc., followed this autonomy line?”

The resolve of these other countries in the face of significant US opposition is largely unknown – much of Chavez’s appeal, in fact, results from the gross lack of engagement in the region by the US. But in an era often characterized by the consolidation of power and the spread of markets, signs of independence in Latin America are encouraging. Chavez has a dream of a multi-polar world with room enough for everyone to thrive, and this may be the beginning.