Sometimes you hear a stray sentence on the news that makes you realise you have been lied to. Deliberately lied to; systematically lied to; lied to for a purpose. If you listened closely over the past few days, you could have heard one such sentence passing in the night-time of news.
As Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of dissonance be explained?
Yes: you have been lied to – about one of the most exciting and original experiments in economic redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions.
Venezuela sits on one of the biggest pools of oil left anywhere. If you find yourself in this position, the rich governments of the world – the US and EU – ask one thing of you: pump the petrol and the profits our way, using our corporations. If you do that, we will whisk you up the Mall in a golden carriage, no matter what. The "King" of Saudi Arabia oversees a torturing tyranny where half the population – women – are placed under house arrest, and jihadis are pumped out by the dozen to attack us. It doesn't matter. He gives us the oil, so we hold his hand and whisper sweet crude-nothings in his ear.
It has always been the same with Venezuela – until now. Back in 1908, the US government set up its ideal Venezuelan regime: a dictator who handed the oil over fast and so freely that he didn't even bother to keep receipts, never mind ask for a cut. But in 1998 the Venezuelan people finally said "enough". They elected Hugo Chavez. The President followed their democratic demands: he increased the share of oil profits taken by the state from a pitiful one per cent to 33 per cent. He used the money to build hospitals and schools and subsidised supermarkets in the tin-and-mud shanty towns where he grew up, and where most of his countrymen still live.
I can take you to any random barrio in the high hills that ring Caracas and show you the results. You will meet women like Francisca Moreno, a gap-toothed 76-year-old granny I found sitting in a tin shack, at the end of a long path across the mud made out of broken wooden planks. From her doorway she looked down on the shining white marble of Caracas's rich district. "I went blind 15 years ago because of cataracts," she explained, and in the old Venezuela people like her didn't see doctors. "I am poor," she said, "so that was that." But she voted for Chavez. A free clinic appeared two years later in her barrio, and she was taken soon after for an operation that restored her sight. "Once I was blind, but now I see!" she said, laughing.
In 2003, two distinguished Wall Street consulting firms conducted the most detailed study so far of economic change under Chavez. They found that the poorest half of the country have seen their incomes soar by 130 per cent after inflation. Today, there are 19,571 primary care doctors – an increase by a factor of 10. When Chavez came to power, just 35 per cent of Venezuelans told Latinobarometro, the Gallup of Latin America, they were happy with how their democracy worked. Today it is 59 per cent, the second-highest in the hemisphere.
For the rich world's governments – and especially for the oil companies, who pay for their political campaigns – this throws up a serious problem. We are addicted to oil. We need it. We crave it. And we want it on our terms. The last time I saw Chavez, he told me he would like to sell oil differently in the future: while poor countries should get it for $10 a barrel, rich countries should pay much more – perhaps towards $200. And he has said that if the rich countries keep intimidating the rest he will shift to selling to China instead. Start the sweating. But Western governments cannot simply say: "We want the oil, our corporations need the profits, so let's smash the elected leaders standing in our way." They know ordinary Americans and Europeans would gag.
So they had to invent lies. They come in waves, each one swelling as the last crashes into incredulity. First they announced Chavez was a dictator. This ignored that he came to power in a totally free and open election, the Venezuelan press remains uncensored and in total opposition to him, and he has just accepted losing a referendum to extend his term and will stand down in 2013.
When that tactic failed, the oil industry and the politicians they lubricate shifted strategy. They announced that Chavez was a supporter of Terrorism (it definitely has a capital T). The Farc is a Colombian guerrilla group that started in the 1960s as a peasant defence network, but soon the pigs began to look like farmers and they became a foul, kidnapping mafia. Where is the evidence Chavez funded them?
On 1 March, the Colombian government invaded Ecuador and blew up a Farc training camp. A few hours later, it announced it had found a pristine laptop in the rubble, and had already rummaged through the 39.5 million pages of Microsoft Word documents it contained to find cast-iron "proof" that Chavez was backing the Farc. Ingrid's sister, Astrid Betancourt, says it is plainly fake. The camp had been totally burned to pieces and the computers had clearly, she says, been "in the hands of the Colombian government for a very long time". Far from fuelling the guerrillas, Chavez has repeatedly pleaded with the Farc to disarm. He managed to negotiate the release of two high-profile hostages – hence Betancourt's swift thanks. He said: "The time of guns has passed. Guerilla warfare is history."
So what now? Now they claim he is a drug dealer, he funds Hezbollah, he is insane. Sometimes they even stumble on some of the real non-fiction reasons to criticise Chavez and use them as propaganda tools. (See our Open House blog later today for a discussion of this). As the world's oil supplies dry up, the desire to control Venezuela's pools will only increase. The US government is already funding separatist movements in Zulia province, along the border with Colombia, where Venezuela's largest oilfields lie. They hope they can break away this whiter-skinned, anti-Chavez province and then drink deep of the petrol there.
Until we break our addiction to oil, our governments will always try to snatch petro-profits away from women like Francisca Moreno. And we – oil addicts all – will be tempted to ignore the strange, dissonant sentences we sometimes hear on the news and lie, blissed-out, in the lies.