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Bringing McCarthyism to a University Near You

Is the federal government so concerned about Hugo Chávez that it's questioning college professors about their ties to Venezuela?
 
 
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Last week, during his office hours at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., professor Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuela-born historian and Bush administration critic, received an odd visit.

It had nothing to do with term papers or syllabi. In fact, the visitors didn't own a student ID card.

Channeling McCarthy-era intimidation, professor Salas greeted two members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department/FBI Joint Task Force on Terrorism. They had a file on the U.S. academic, complete with a photo. And they had questions: Was he a U.S. citizen? What was his immigration status? Was he in contact with the Venezuelan embassy?

The event spun from blogosphere to mainstream press, prompting apologies from the FBI's Los Angeles office and birthing charges that the Bush administration is resuscitating Red Scare tactics in an effort to stem U.S. grassroots support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's socialist ideology.

Is the White House that worried about Chávez's power? Recent weeks have brought marked amplification of Washington's Cold War of words. But top U.S. officials have zeroed in on Chávez's international misdeeds. Intelligence Chief John Negroponte, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continue to charge Chávez with strong-arming opposition at home, funding rogue elements in his region and coddling Washington's top enemies abroad, including Iran and North Korea.

Last month in congressional testimony, Rice said a " policy of inoculation" was necessary to diplomatically contain Mr. Chávez's influence in Latin America.

For his part, Chávez has mastered the art of annoying Washington: backing Tehran's nuclear plans, wooing North Korea, extending his hand to Hamas, pushing his own civilian nuclear power plans, all while repeating threats to clamp off oil supplies to the United States.

Meanwhile, the controller of the world's fifth-largest oil exporting country is deftly seeding his image and ideology in Washington's backyard, connecting with U.S. citizens and groups that share his disdain for the Bush administration, for neoliberalism and, more generally, for globalization's myriad failures.

His message is powered by oil. Flush with petrodollars, Chávez has offered free or discounted gas to America's poorest citizens through CITGO, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company. He has floated the idea of offering free eye surgery to poor Americans while his government has helped out on local levels. In Chicago, for instance, a popular street festival Fiesta Boricua, was saved last year by a $100,000 donation from CITGO.

And he's won followers, from Jessie Jackson to Cindy Sheehan to everyday Americans from Tennessee to Utah. The Miami Herald reported in December that fifteen "Bolivarian Circles" -- the grassroots groups that form the basis of Chávez's social revolution in Venezuela -- have sprung up in U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Boston, Miami, Salt Lake City and Knoxville. Meanwhile, his government is paying a Washington lobbyist for an image buffing on Capitol Hill.

Supporters say Chávez's "grassroots foreign policy" is a taste of Washington's own medicine, a flip side to the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy's support of anti-Chávez groups in Venezuela. Washington casts Chávez as the puppeteer of Latin America's so-called "Pink Tide," the recent rise of progressive, anti-U.S. politicians eager to distance themselves from U.S.-backed free market policies. With oil at stake and Bush at 39 percent approval ratings, does the Salas incident mark the beginnings of a Pink Scare?

In this edited transcript, professor Salas talks with Alternet.

Kelly Hearn: What do you think caused the visit? Are you currently active in groups that support Mr. Chávez?

Miguel Salas: The only grassroots I have is my family. I'm a professor and hardly have time for anything but teaching and publishing, and trying to keep my head above water. I have a full load and am not involved in any kind of grassroots activity. I think this happened because I am an outspoken critic of U.S. policy, which has all but failed and is premised on isolating Mr. Chávez. I am a very vociferous critic and have done so publicly in print and broadcast media. In fact, the day before they showed up, I had been on CNN en Espanol talking about the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

KH: Mr. Chávez is spreading his Bolivarian revolution on a regional stage and is connecting with marginalized communities who feel ignored by the United States and hurt by neoliberal, U.S.-backed policies. He's now connecting with some Americans in a similar way. How would you characterize the potential political impact his Bolivarian Revolution might have among marginalized communities in the United States?

MS: I don't think social processes are exportable if discontent doesn't exist in the first place, the kind of protests we've seen in countries like Argentina and Bolivia. I don't think Chávez's position will have much of an impact here. But throughout the continent, there is a great level of social discontent that's the product of 20 years of neoliberal policy.

KH: But it seems his message is at least connecting with some people here

MS: That is why the Bush administration is so nervous. It has seen its position erode significantly. They have squandered capital in Iraq, which has been disastrous. In that context we see the Patriot Act renewed, we see homeland security, we see eavesdropping

KH: And now we see agents at your door.

MS: Now we see agents in my office hours. It's like "who's coming to my office hours?" and they are not students. I'm not ready to say this marks a return to the McCarthy Era, but there are interesting parallels with the administration losing the support of the people on the verge of congressional elections and opting to use agents of the state to cause intimidation in academic circles.

KH: The Bush administration charges that Mr. Chávez is resorting to draconian tactics, such as overreaching press laws for example, to silence critics and maintain power. What do you make of these claims?

MS: For the critics who worry about freedom of press, I would urge them to go to Venezuela and read the newspapers, which have unfettered ability to criticize and mock Chávez. I constantly read Venezuelan newspapers and amazed at the extent to which they call him a guerrilla, a monkey, a chimpanzee, to an extent you wouldn't see in the United States. I fully support a free press, and I have not seen a muzzled press in Venezuela.

KH: There are conflicting views about the extent to which Mr. Chávez has used petrodollars to address poverty in Venezuela, in other words, the extent to which his alternative development model really works. Has he managed to deal with institutionalized problems in your view?

MS: I think the problem is on the ground where poverty continues to increase. Fundamentally he needs to create parallel institutions. He has many plans, medical and educational and so on, but these have to be institutionalized. The key gauge is poverty alleviation. People need to see their standard of living improve, and that is fundamental to any administration. He needs to move away from missions into institutionalized arrangements by which missions take root and provide services.

KH: Economists note that developing nations that have lots of natural resources often fare worse that developing nations that don't. Is Venezuela an exception to the so-called "oil curse?"

MS: Oil is a different and unique commodity. It's not the same as coffee or copper or bananas because of the role it plays in the world economy, especially now with China and India developing and demanding access to it. This provides an opportunity that can't be squandered, an opportunity to take resources and put them back into the economy. The problem is that in Venezuela the benefits of oil have always gone to the elite and middle class.

KH: Two Republican U.S. senators recently told me off the record there was no way the United States government will militarily intervene in Venezuela. Mr. Chávez, on the other hand, claims to have evidence that Washington is set to invade. Given the increasingly tough rhetoric coming out of Washington, as well as Venezuela's support for Tehran's nuclear plan, do you think military intervention is at all possible in the next, say, five years?

MS: It is impossible to predict. Nobody would have known a country not linked to 9/11 would have been invaded on that pretense. I could only hope Bush wouldn't go down that path because we've seen what can happen in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Any U.S. action in Venezuela would destabilize all of South America. It would be a conflict of dramatic proportion for the region and be disastrous. I hope there are level minds in Washington. But they will continue to meddle as we have seen with groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, the AFL-CIO, which has used resources in that direction, and others.

KH: A recent deal that allows U.S. troops to train on Paraguayan soil has sparked rumors that the U.S. is seeking a permanent outpost in the region to counter the so-called Chávez-Castro axis. What do you think?

MS: The United States is militarizing Latin America. We have a legacy of dirty war throughout the continent. In the past, the U.S. trained the military in countries with clear records of human rights abuses, training individuals in the School of the Americas as well as on the continent. The U.S. has a base in Ecuador, and now they are sending troops to Paraguay. This and the recent visits to the region by Donald Rumsfeld are also a concern.

Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who divides his time between the United States and South America. A correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor , his work has appeared in The Nation , The American Prospect and other publications. He is a regular contributor to AlterNet.