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The Path of Bolivar: Hugo Chavez and the Future of Venezuela

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In a time when foreign leaders viewed as anti-us are being dragged out of holes or forced to kowtow to international pressure, one target of us-led “regime change” is standing firm and has, so far, overcome all attempts to oust him.

He is not a despotic tyrant. He isn’t even a dictator. But he is on the Bush administration’s hit list. He is Hugo Chavez, the twice-elected president of Venezuela and, for the last five years, the eye of a political hurricane swirling over the economic future of Venezuela.

A founding member of opec and, as recently as the second quarter of 2002, the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world, Venezuela has oil at the heart of its economy. Sales of oil account for one third of the country’s gdp, one half of government revenues, and 80 percent of exports. Venezuela is an immensely important trading partner of the United States. In 2001, the last full year before a crippling strike dealt a blow to the Venezuelan oil industry from which, even now, it is struggling to recover, Venezuela was the third-largest exporter of oil to the us, accounting for almost 1.6 million barrels per day.

Normally, Washington would not openly remove anyone at the helm of a country with as much as 200 billion barrels of recoverable heavy crude oil, but Venezuela sticks out because of who Chavez is rather than what power he holds. Born in 1958, Chavez graduated from the military academy in 1975. One year later his battalion was sent to crush a guerrilla outbreak of ultra-leftists. This experience, according to accounts by Chavez himself, left him sympathetic to the guerrilla movement. At the same time, he became acutely aware of the infiltration of political corruption into the military.

Dreaming of revolution, Chavez aspired to create a movement within the army, and by 1982 he had organized the clandestine Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement with fellow officers. Uttering the same words of revered Venezuelan revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar, when he vowed to break the chains of Spanish control, the group swore, “I will not allow my arm to relax, nor my soul to rest, until I have broken the chains that oppress us.” They planned to one day revolt against what they saw as an oppressive and corrupt government.

“Savage” neo-liberalism
In 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez was re-elected. Pérez had been president from 1974 to 1979, during which time he appealed to left-wing nationalists by nationalizing the foreign oil companies and developing industry. He was brought back to power to revive these good old days of state control. No sooner was he in office than he changed direction and immediately began to restructure the economy along what Chavez refers to as “savage” neo-liberalism: a 10-point program advocated by Washington that included reductions in spending for military and public administration, deregulation of the economy, promotion of foreign direct investment, privatization of state business, trade liberalization, and the abolition of import licensing and reduction in tariffs. In return, Pérez secured a loan from the imf for $4.5 billion.

Shortly after his election, Pérez announced a 100 percent increase in oil prices. Ten days later, people traveling to work found that bus fares had doubled. With the country already straining under severe economic pressures, this seemingly minor event sent the population over the edge. An unpremeditated rebellion—the Caracazo, as it became known—erupted in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Televised reports of angry commuters overturning buses and setting them on fire spread fierce rebellion across the country. It was met by a savage military response that saw hundreds of bodies buried in unmarked graves. Chavez was sick in bed when the revolt broke out and he and his fellow conspirators were caught totally unprepared. By the end of the year, many of them were questioned and accused of plotting to assassinate the president and senior officers. Despite the fact that no proof of a conspiracy could be found, the officers were separated and reassigned to different posts around the country.

By February 1992, the 38-year-old Chavez found himself in a position to attempt to seize power. Promising to overthrow corrupt politicians, to improve the conditions of the poor, and to move the country onto a fresh course, Chavez lead a group of rebel Venezuelan Army lieutenant colonels in a coup. Although successful in other parts of the country, they were unable to seize the presidential palace in Caracas and the coup failed.

Chavez’s true coup came when he surrendered and asked to appear on tv to tell fellow rebels to put down their arms. “Comrades,” he is reported to have said in his one-minute appearance, “unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set out for ourselves have not been achieved in the capital…. You have performed well, but now is the time to rethink; new possibilities will arise again.” (Later, in November of 1992, a second military coup attempted by others also failed).

Por Ahora
According to Richard Gott in his book In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, Chavez’s going so far as to imply that the coup might have better luck in the future turned him into a national hero, celebrated across Venezuela in song and poetry. “The phrase ‘for the moment,’ por ahora, caught the popular imagination. The aims of the rebellion had not been secured, but most people read his message optimistically, as a sign Chavez would return to the struggle at a later date. Por ahora became his trademark slogan.”

For their roles in the coup attempt, Chavez and other leaders were given long prison sentences, yet Chavez served only two years. During his imprisonment, he continued to organize. In 1993, Pérez was accused of corruption and removed from power through what was called a “congressional coup.” New elections were held in December of 1993, and the winner, Rafael Caldera, had Chavez released from prison the following March.

At first, jaded by the political corruption he had witnessed, Chavez was opposed to participating in the electoral process. By 1997, he began to change his view, and in November of 1998 Chavez ran for and won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote. He was reelected in July of 2000. His policies, hugely popular among the poor and working class, have angered business and financial leaders in his country and even more powerful opponents abroad. At the root of the conflict is how Venezuela’s economy is to be managed.

“Venezuela may enjoy huge oil revenues, [but] these are rapidly mopped up by a tiny percentage of the population,” writes Gott. “The great majority of the country is permanently poor and hungry. While the top 10 percent of the population of 23 million receives half the national income, 40 percent, according to an estimate in 1995, live in ‘critical poverty.’ An estimated 80 percent, according to the figures of 1996, earn the minimum wage or less. As if this was not enough, this situation has been growing dramatically worse. Real purchasing power declined 35 percent between 1989 and 1995.”

Fidel, Moammar, and Saddam
While Venezuela is one of America’s most important trading partners—if only because of unequal importance of the oil sector—it is also one of Cuba’s. Chavez’s close relationship with Fidel Castro, often described as a friendship, is but one sign of the defiant way he swims against the mainstream of neoliberal and neoconservative ideology. Chavez’s revolutionary attitude is intended to suggest a connection to the historic struggle of the revolutionary movements of Che Guevara and Castro. While visiting Cuba in 1999, Chavez told Castro, “Here we are…Fidel and Hugo, fighting with dignity and courage to defend the interests of our people, and to bring alive the ideas of Bolivar and Marti.”

And if that isn’t reason enough to earn him a place on Washington’s hit list, Chavez also has ties to Libyan President Mommar Quadaffi. And in August of 2000 he met with now-deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, defying the us by being the first head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.

At home, Chavez’s opponents include business leaders, the mainstream media, and the upper echelon of the Catholic Church (96 percent of Venezuelans are Catholic). They have used extreme tactics to attempt to end his rule. In April 2002, while an American naval ship floated not far off shore, a short-lived coup took place in which Chavez was removed from power for three days. As depicted in the recently released documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, during this brief time Chavez never relinquished the presidency to his captors. Yet opposition leader and Chamber of Commerce head, businessman Pedro Carmona, swore himself in as president, and the segment of the military that supported Carmona announced Chavez’s “resignation”. Palace guards and loyalists within the Venezuelan military, supported by the masses from the barrios, took back control of the government, arrested opposition leaders, and brought Chavez back to the palace amid much fanfare and relief.

Undaunted, the opposition kicked off a months-long strike later that same year, which crippled the oil industry before it finally ended last February. Now, opponents to Chavez are engaged in their second attempt to achieve a recall referendum, which would oust him just over halfway through his current term. They claim to have gotten 50 percent more signatures than they needed to force such a vote, but Chavez claims massive fraud inflated their totals.

A Third Way?
Even those who do not support the president often have no love for his opponents. “I don’t want to be with Chavez,” says retired journalist Jose Vivas, who lives with his wife in a hotel they run on the beach of the tiny Caribbean fishing village of Santa Fe. “I don’t want to be with the opposition. I want a third way.” According to Vivas, one argument against Chavez by those least virulently opposed to his rule is that he is responsible for the divisions in Venezuela. “He divided the country into the ones who are for him and the ones who are against him.”

Fernando Nocua, a Chavez supporter, envi-ronmental activist, and small business owner in the Andean city of Merida, sees things differently. “Many people say that Chavez has divided Venezuela, but Venezuela has been divided before him—between 70 percent poor people and the rest middle class and just [a] small group [of] really rich people.”
The group advocating the third way seems to differ with the opposition over its sometimes undemocratic methods. “If the majority want Chavez, look, I have to respect that,” says Vivas. “The majority is what counts.”

Throughout the country pro-Chavez graffiti is ubiquitous to this day, a fact that also indicates the economic gulf between supporters and opponents of Chavez. Opposition graffiti is uncommon, though more expensive billboards in support of the current referendum drive—many of which have been defaced with spray paint—are commonplace. Pro-government billboards are relatively rare, yet also often defaced, and formal pro-Chavez advertisements usually take the form of cheaper banners and signs.

Last December 6, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, as Chavez’s supporters are known, turned out for a rally on Avenida Bolivar to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his election. The gathering had the feel of a street party, with vendors selling beer and snacks, and hawkers touting Chavez’s trademark red beret—symbolic of the parachute regiment he belonged to at the time of the 1992 coup.

Chavez himself did not arrive at the rally until 5pm. By the time he finished his national broadcast an hour and forty-five minutes later amid a fireworks display, his supporters at the front of the crowd showed little sign of waning enthusiasm. He is “one of the finest social communicators I ever saw, and I have a lot of years in television,” says Jose Vivas. On this day, Chavez sang to the crowd, as he regularly does, repeatedly pulling a copy of the Venezuelan constitution from his shirt pocket and holding it up as he spoke.

In his first speech as president, Chavez announced his intent for a national referendum stating that the people decide whether elections should be held for a National Assembly to draft a new constitution to replace the old one formulated in 1961. As early as 1984, changes had been made to the old constitution, but none so vast as those found in the final draft of the new one. In April of 1999, 88 percent of the people voted “yes” to the referendum and by December of that year, 71 percent approved the new constitution.
The Recall
The new constitution also handed Chavez’s opponents the tool they need to dethrone him: the recall referendum. Under the new document, a recall vote can be called by a petition of at least 20 percent of the registered voters in a given politician’s constituency. For the presidency, that comes out to approximately 2.4 million of 12 million registered voters nationwide.

In February 2003, the opposition made its first attempt to force a recall vote. Despite the opposition's claim that it had enough signatures, last September the petition was thrown out by the National Election Council (cne) on the grounds that the midpoint in Chavez’s current term—his first under the new constitution—had to be reached before his mandate could be challenged in this way.

Last November, the opposition tried again. Just before Christmas, they turned in what they claimed were 3.6 million valid signatures demanding a plebiscite on the remainder of Chavez’s term, along with sufficient endorsements, they claimed, to go ahead with votes on the future of an uncertain number of the 37 pro-Chavez members of the National Constituent Assembly (acn) they had also sought to oust. The cne said it would take 30 days to verify the petitions, but no one seemed certain as the year drew to a close if this meant calendar days or business days.
At the same time, the cne is also looking over signatures gathered by Chavez supporters in an attempt to force recall votes to oust opposition acn members. Chavez says there are enough signatures to do so; the opposition claims the effort fell far short. Once this is sorted out, any referenda could be held as early as March or April. All of this begs the questions: why is Chavez so hated, and why is he so loved? Ironically, the answer to both may just be the vast problems faced by Venezuela early in this new millennium.

In international eyes, Venezuela’s biggest problem is security. Despite the coup attempt and the often-bloody protests that have rocked the country in recent years, common street crime is a big problem. In most towns and cities, it is unwise to venture out after nightfall. In Cuidad Bolivar, for example, the walk along the Orinoco River in this bustling town of several hundred thousand is tightly packed during daylight hours with shoppers, street vendors, shop employees venturing out to reel in potential customers, and armed security guards. By the evening hours, the street is eerily deserted, with only a Chinese restaurant or hot dog stand still open here or there, and almost no pedestrians.

But that assessment merely scratches the surface. Crime is not a problem because Venezuelans have little regard for the law, though that is often the case. According to Fernando Nocua, “The [lack of] security, the criminality, have to do with the economic situation.”

And the signs of the poor economy are everywhere. In Caracas, the vast shantytowns clinging to the hills around the city are strangely beautiful from the outside, but the endemic violence and poverty within puts them off-limits to outsiders, Venezuelans and foreigners alike. Millions of people, equivalent to as much as 10 percent of the country's population, are unemployed. This sector comprises unlicensed street vendors, hawkers, and the near-beggars who board buses at terminals and toll booths in hopes of collecting something for the snacks or trinkets they offer.

Signs of Collapse
Grander signs of collapse are visible throughout the country, and incomplete construction projects stand idle. One of the most glaring examples of this is the sad state of the highway from Puerto Ayucucho along the upper Orinoco, which marks the border with Columbia in the southern state of Amazonia, to San Fernando de Apure, the only town of any size in the vast expanse of the southern plains. This road is barely passable. Many kilometers of it are almost hopelessly rutted and potholed, forcing the rickety buses that ply the route to come to a near standstill and creep through small stretches of road. Three river crossings along the way have no bridges. While it makes sense for the mighty Orinoco to be crossed by ferry, the vast river has only one bridge across its entire length: downstream at the more important Ciudad Bolivar. Bridges have been started in two places, but only a handful of standing pylons and piles of others rusting on the banks are to show for it. Instead, metal canoes with outboard motors push ferries across in both spots.

The security problem has its roots in the faltering economy but the economic strains also have a deeper cause. While the recent devastating coup and strike can be blamed for economic shortcomings, or the corruption that has long plagued Venezuela’s government, most observers blame one factor: the lack of education.
“It’s like a circle,” says Nocua. “Why? Because you don’t have a better economy because you don’t have the right people to make the economy better, but you don’t have the right people because you don’t have a good economy.” Asked what would break that circle, Nocua answers: “education”.

Ambitious projects have been undertaken by the government in the years since Chavez took office, with most seeking to address the education problem. Plan Robinson, for example, seeks to raise the literacy rate to 100 percent. To achieve this goal, 1 million Venezuelans will need to be taught to read and write. Plan Ribas addresses higher education, seeking to help Venezuelans achieve bachelor’s degrees and placements with firms such as the state oil giant pdvsa. Intermediate steps are taken through the Escuela Bolivariana (Bolivarian School) project, which is intended to reform elementary education throughout the country.

Supporters say that Chavez is working to change attitudes about education. “I think he’s working really hard in education,” says Nocua. “One of the problems of Venezuela is that people grew up with the feeling that we were rich and we could get [everything] from the government through subsidies. People, until ten years [ago], didn’t care, really, much about education.”

Chavistas see these projects, which are aimed at aiding the poor, who come disproportionately from the African and indigenous background which Chavez shares, as concrete steps toward a democratic revolution in their country. The opposition, which draws support largely from the middle and upper classes, worries that these developments mark the first steps down the road to a Cuban-style Communist dictatorship with Chavez at the helm.

Indeed, there are many aspects of Castro’s revolutionary policies in Cuba that are being replicated by Chavez. Some land redistribution has taken place. Squatters have been given title to the land they already live on, thus allowing them access to microlending programs aimed at helping the poor start their own businesses. “If we would have communism here in Venezuela, you wouldn’t have the right to have your own land,” Nocua explained. “If you are organized as a community, you can ask for the right for the piece of land where you live.” This provides the collateral banks require before offering credit.

Even on the educational front, the policies hearken to Cuba. Plan Robinson is based on a Cuban literacy drive in the early 1960s, and Castro has donated equipment for the project. Escuela Bolivariana has a social aspect as well, aiming to educate Venezuelans about subjects like capitalism and globalization. Overall the project has a revolutionary and communitarian, if not communistic, nature, at least in terms of the rhetoric of those implementing it.

The opposition advocates neoliberal, market-driven solutions to Venezuela’s problems. The two sides could not be more diametrically opposed, and it remains to be seen how far either will go to ensure that its agenda becomes public policy.

On Christmas Eve, thousands of people thronged the streets of Caracas. As dusk fell, explosions resounded throughout the city. This time, the reports were from the traditional Christmas fireworks as crowds of last-minute shoppers mobbed vendors’ stalls.

For a time, the holiday season supplanted the dueling recall drives in the media and in people’s minds. Soon, though, the glow will fade, and the country’s future will once again take center stage. Right now, that future is extremely uncertain. No one knows whether a recall vote will be held, who will win if it is, or what the loser’s next steps might be.

For the latest information on what’s happening in Venezuela, visit Z Magazine’s Venezuela-Watch at www.zmag.org/venezuela_watch.htm.

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