One More Reason Not to Go to 7-11

For a relative newcomer to Richmond, one of the striking things about the city is the extraordinary quantity of 7-11 convenience stores per capita. There are three within short walking distance of where I live alone, and no trip of any consequence around the city fails to uncover one or two more locations. This may strike many Richmonders as perfectly normal, but for those who’ve spent significant time elsewhere in places where the mom-and-pop convenience and coffee store still dominates (such as Somerville, MA) 7-11’s hegemony takes some getting used to.

Perhaps in this space at some future point we can discuss the relative merits of 7-11s versus non-franchised corner stores (such as the propensity of franchise profits to leave the area rather than being recycled back into the local economy). The issue at hand today, however, is the RTD’s predictable praise for 7-11’s announcement this week that it wants to break ties with Citgo, the distributor of Venezuelan-produced gasoline in the United States. The reason for the break is 7-11’s discomfort about continuing to be associated with the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chavez.

Very few Americans, even now, are likely aware that Citgo has anything to do with Venezuela. But with the Bush Administration and others anxious to demonize Chavez, and many liberals afraid to defend the leader in the wake of his pointed and typically flamboyant speech at the United Nations critical of the United States, it’s understandable that 7-11 is a little nervous about someone pointing out the link.

7-11 of course has the right to associate with whatever business partners they want. And consumers have the right not to go to 7-11, but instead seek out other Citgo outlets.

I’ll try to explain briefly why buying Citgo gas may not be such an evil act. First, it’s a bit simplistic to call Chavez “anti-American,” when his government sponsors a program that provides fuel assistance to some 70,000 low-income households in New York City, and offered its aid in the wake of the Katrina disaster. He’s an anti-imperialist, which is a slightly different thing; it’s clear he despises George W. Bush and is willing to say so in ways that are plainly offensive to the norms of American political culture. But he while he dislikes the American government and the way American power has historically been used, I’m not convinced that he wants the American people to suffer or be “crippled and prostrate,” as the RTD puts it.

Second, the fact remains that Chavez is democratically elected leader who has won three elections (two popular elections, one recall vote), all of which were approved as legitimate expressions of the public will by the Carter Center. (The Center did find some problems with the election, especially in 2000, however, and other groups have been far more critical of the elections.) This is not to say that Chavez is Thomas Jefferson or that there is not reason for some cautionary skepticism regarding the depth of Chavez’s commitment to constitutional democracy. But for the time being, it’s a fair judgment to say that Chavez does in fact have the support of the majority of Venezuelans (if also the undying hatred of the historically privileged groups in Venezuela).

The third and most important point, however, is that almost no one in the United States actually knows anything at all about Chavez’s actual policies in Venezuela. What is most threatening to conservative interests in the United States is not whether or not Chavez is committed to constitutional norms (a question that doesn’t concern them when the leader is pro-business and pro-American), but that his government is trying to carve out a social vision that is a genuine alternative to the failed model of neoliberalism.

In particular, Chavez’s regime is attempting to build and sustain bottom-up, grassroots economic power in the form of cooperatives. Cooperatives in Venezuela have expanded their membership from fewer than 20,000 in 1998 to over 1.5 million persons today, according to a superb article on this development in Dollars & Sense magazine. The intent is to place more economic power not in the hands of a centralized state, but in the hands of people who have long been dispossesed from any form of economic power and give them some control over their own economic fate.

How well this strategy will work over the long run is an open question, but I think the idea of the “cooperative revolution” would receive sympathy from many Americans, if they knew more about it. The effort to build an economy that enfranchises the disenfranchised and expands rather the constricts the independence of ordinary working people is an endeavor worthy of sympathy and support, even if one harbors doubts about the Chavez regime on other counts.

Back to the RTD: its brief editorial note does make one very valid point. America’s dependence on foreign oil does lead us to become economically entangled with foreign regimes who may or may not be committed to constitutional democracy. If you’re comparing Chavez’s democratic credentials with that of the Saudi monarchy, however, Chavez wins hand down on just about every conceivable measure (except that of being sufficiently solicitous of American power and business interests).

Published in: on October 7, 2006 at 3:20 pm  Comments (3)