Odd couple, odd deal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 February, 2007, 12:00am

In a globalised world, nothing should surprise us. Yet a deal struck recently between London and Venezuela has raised many an eyebrow: discounted oil will be provided for London so that the poor can travel for half-fare on its buses and trams, in return for tips on urban planning for the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Initial questions about the deal would, at face value, seem valid. What is Ken Livingstone, the mayor of one of the planet's wealthiest cities, doing taking cheap petrol from a nation where 35 per cent of the people live below the poverty line? Shouldn't Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, be selling the oil and using the proceeds to improve the lives of his own people?

Why isn't the expertise - from Greater London Authority officials on matters like recycling, traffic and waste management - being offered gratis instead of in exchange for a commodity that the city can well afford to buy?

And then comes that shrug of the shoulders and the tag so often misused when talking about people with left-leaning views: Well, what do you expect from a pair of socialists?

Mr Livingstone, nicknamed 'Red Ken' by Britons for his political leanings, calls himself a socialist. The deal he signed with the oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela Europa on Tuesday is certainly that, in design: it will allow London's most needy 250,000 people to use buses and trams for half the usual fare. But Mr Livingstone does not appear to have thought through the figures, and some observers suggest the scheme may bankrupt London's transport system.

Mr Chavez, who was feted by the mayor in May, refers to himself as a democratic socialist. There is a far more accurate term to describe him, though: dictator.

The Venezuelan leader was once a career military officer. Like many of his ilk in Latin America over the decades, he assumed that status gave him the right to rule. He formed the leftist Fifth Republic Movement and, in 1992, staged a failed coup. With promises to help the poor, he ran for and won election to the presidency in 1998, and was re-elected in 2000 and last year. On February 1, he was granted broad powers by the National Assembly to stamp his vision of the way ahead for the nation - under terms best described as dictatorial.

He will rule by presidential decree for the next 18 months, and has pledged to initiate measures that he claims will transform Venezuela. But in his nine years in office, his much-touted goals of eliminating social ills like poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy have achieved little. His grip on power has become increasingly autocratic and, with his new mandate, he has absolute control of the country.

Mr Chavez's anti-imperialist views have led to a war of words and foreign policy push against the perceived arch-nemesis, the US. He has toured the world, enlisting the help of like-minded souls - Latin American governments, Iran and China top the list.

Nick Beams, national secretary of Australia's Socialist Equality Party and a member of the World Socialist Web Site International editorial board, is not fooled. He described Mr Chavez as a 'populist demagogue' and said it was important to look beyond labels when talking about socialism.

'[Mr] Chavez is in the tradition of many others that have gone before him in Latin America,' Mr Beams said. 'Some of the generals talk on the left, some on the right; his politics are determined by the attempt to manoeuvre between the US, Europe, China and so on. So, of course, he talks out of the left side of his mouth at certain points; [and] he has to make concessions at home to the masses on a social basis. But he's by no means a socialist.'

Those in the US who have received cheap heating oil over the past two years courtesy of Venezuela may think otherwise, as might London's poorest commuters. Their opinion may be shared by those who voted for Mr Chavez and his promises of poverty alleviation.

The reality of the ways of self-tagged socialists will become apparent for both Londoners and Venezuelans in coming months.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.