The political reality of Venezuela hits me as soon as I arrive, like a blast of Caribbean air at midday. A friendly question triggers a torrent of anti-Chavez denunciations from the young professional serving as my driver from the airport that only ends when he deposits me at the Hilton.
“We used to be a tolerant country,” he claims. “Now Chavez has set the lower class against the middle class, the black people against the whites. Sure, there are a few abusive rich people, but it’s not just them he’s targeted. It’s people like me. You know, middle class people, with an apartment, two cars, maybe a vacation outside the country once a year.”
“But beware,” he cautions me as he drives off. “You’ll meet him tomorrow night, and he can really be charming.”
A Second Bolivar?
Indeed he is. At a banquet for participants at an international conference the next evening, Hugo Chavez, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is at his social, disarming best. Upon being introduced to me, he takes me by the hand, , pretending to lead me in the Filipino bamboo dance “tinikling,” which he says he learned during a state visit to the Philippines during the Estrada presidency. And far into the evening, he talks expansively on a wide range of topics, from his being saved and reinstalled by the poor in Miraflores, the presidential palace, during the failed coup of April 11-13, to his dream of integrating the petroleum industries of Venezuela, Brazil, and other oil producers in Latin America.
Chavez’ effusiveness is remarkable given the fact that Venezuela is on the brink of civil war. In this, he resembles his hero, Simon Bolivar, the larger-than-life Venezuelan who led the liberation of Spanish America in the early 19th century, who is said to have maintained an enthusiastic disposition even in the midst of the most trying political and personal crisis.
A second coup attempt is said to be brewing among the “anti-Chavistas,” which include the elite and middle class, the media, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and parts of the army. Caracas is filled with rumors–with two dates frequently cited as D-Day, July 5 and July 11.
Gilberto Jimenez, a young Chavez partisan, discounts the rumors as the product of the middle class’ “scaring itself.” “It’s like the talk about the “Bolivarian circles” arming themselves,” he remarks, referring to the grasssroots institutions that Chavez’ people have set up in the barrios or popular districts. “There’s no truth to it. But they email this to one another, and pretty soon, they [the middle class] are talking about arming themselves.”
The class divisions in this country showed itself to the world as an ugly wound during the events of April 11-13. During a confrontation between opposition and government demonstrators on April 11, still unidentified gunmen fired into the crowd, killing 18, mostly pro-Chavez people. A few hours later, after army chief Gen. Efrain Vasquez demands Chavez’ resignation, rebel officers and soldiers seize him at Miraflores and bring him, first to the Venezuelan army headquarters at Fort Tiuna, then to an island off the Venezuelan coast.
A junta headed by Pedro Carmona Estanga, head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and backed by key generals and admirals, installs itself in power and unilaterally dissolves the National Assembly, Supreme Court, National Electoral Council, and all state and municipal governments. It also nullifies a package of 48 laws approved by the National Assembly that the right regards as a threat to the existing property system.
It is a classic case of overreach. Angered by the brazen moves and refusing to believe that Chavez has “resigned,” many military units declare for Chavez even as hundreds of thousands of poor people descend on central Caracas from the ranchos, or slums, surrounding the city, creating a critical mass that scatters the pro-coup forces.
Recalling the events, Chavez tells us over dinner, “The government was weak, we were weak, but in our moment of need, the people came out to the streets and saved us.” The event, says Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, has significance beyond Venezuela, being “the first victory of the masses in the Americas and the world in a long, long time.”
In 48 hours, Chavez is back in power. Meanwhile, not a few institutions have egg on their face. The New York Times, for instance, editorializes in favor of the coup on Saturday, April 13, then retracts on Tuesday, April 16. Like the Times, the Bush administration blames Chavez for bringing the coup on himself, then begins to fudge as soon as he is back in power. But the damage is done. Many European and Latin American governments criticize the US for tolerating the overthrow of a democratically elected government. Indeed, many people, in Venezuela and outside, suspect the US had a hand in the coup, claiming that two US Navy officers were seen with coup leaders at Fort Tiuna on the night of April 11 and 12.
The question is critical, but whether or not the US had a hand in developments, some sort of social confrontation was inevitable.
Two Nations, One Country
Venezuela is one of Latin America’s most class-divided countries. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the people live in poverty, with the World Bank estimating that the share of the national income going to the lowest 20 per cent of the population is only 3.7 per cent, while that of the highest 10 per cent is 37 per cent. The vast wealth differentials were to some extent mitigated during the halcyon days of OPEC in the early 1980’s, when some of the oil money did trickle down in a country that was then known as “Latin America’s Saudi Arabia.” But with the collapse of oil prices and the initiation of a wrenching structural adjustment program, Venezuela entered into permanent constant economic crisis since the mid-eighties. “It was spectacular,” says Neils Liberani, a small businessman. “Per capita fell from nearly $2000 in the eighties to $110 today.”
The “Caricazo” of 1989, when people from the barrios descended on and rioted in the center and rich districts of Caracas in protest against fuel price increases demanded by the International Monetary Fund, is said to have been a determining event in Chavez’ political evolution. Three years later, in February 1992, the young idealistic colonel led a failed coup in the name of the poor masses which was styled as a “Bolivarian military uprising.”
The coup failed, but it catapulted Chavez into the center of Venezuelan politics, and when he ran for president in 1998 on a platform of ending corruption and subordination to foreign powers and beginning a social revolution, he won handily, with some 56 per cent of the vote, drawing support even from sectors of the middle class that now oppose him bitterly.
The last three years have indeed been revolutionary. Chavez pushed through a new constitution that was approved in a popular referendum. He formed a political coalition that won control of the National Assembly. The Assembly passed the famous package of 49 laws that included an agrarian reform law, a law to protect small fishermen, and a law limiting the role of the private sector in exploiting Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.
“Many people in the media at first criticized him for being merely rhetorical in his promises. But when he moved to create and implement revolutionary measures, these same people started to oppose him,” says Jimenez.
In foreign policy, Chavez’ moves were equally bold. He was effusive in his admiration for Fidel Castro. He broke the embargo against state visits to Saddam Hussein. And he played a key role in uniting OPEC to manage oil production in order to stabilize the price of oil. These moves did not endear him to the United States.
Indeed, Chavez’ foreign policy is breathtakingly Bolivarian. Not only does he dream of a regionally integrated oil industry. He also speaks about a South Atlantic Treaty Organization that would have only Latin American and African members and would be geared to preserve the common security of the Southern countries. He has not hidden his skepticism about the Bush administration’s Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal, and his aides say that it will not win approval in a referendum in Venezuela.
Yet Chavez has his critics on the left was well. Some say he is too aggressive in personal style and too quick to brand those with legitimate criticism as “enemies of the people.” Others say that he is too dependent on support on loyalist groups within the military, and this will be difficult to maintain given the middle-class origins of most officers. “These people have to live day to day in the midst of middle class people who hate Chavez,” says a Chavez supporter who requested anonymity. Still others say that that he has not gone beyond charismatic populism to have a well-articulated program of change. As Anibal Quijano puts it, “‘Chavismo’ needs to be converted quickly into a genuine democratic process liberated from the mystical relationship of the dispersed and disorganized masses with a caudillo with the peculiar style of Chavez.” Some say that while Chavez and his allies have begun to depersonalize and institutionalize the revolution via the formation of the Bolivarian circles, this comes comes rather late in the game.
Revolution and Counterrevolution
Whether late or not, the government is moving to organize popular power. The Bolivarian circles are seen as institutions of self-government, which are given exceptional latitude in determining projects and priorities. “People have to stop waiting for government to do things for them. They have to start doing things for themselves, with local government in a support role,” says Freddie Bernal, the mayor of large low-income district Libertador and one of Chavez’ most trusted aides.
The revolution is real, but so is the counterrevolution. The atmosphere of high tension in Caracas reminds one of Santiago in 1973, when the elite and the middle class were massing in the streets demanding the ouster of the “dictatorial” government of Salvador Allende which had allegedly introduced “the politics of hate” in a once pacific country.
The democratic rhetoric is the same, but then as now, in 1973 Chile and in 2002 Venezuela, the problem the right faces is that the revolutionary leader has been popularly elected. Moreover, the revolutionary constitution has been democratically approved. And the laws addressing the social inequalities have been passed by a democratic parliament.
Then as now as well, the right is on strike economically, withholding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment or moving it offshore, thus worsening the economic crisis that Chavez inherited from previous administrations. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says one pro-Chavez partisan who requested anonymity. “They refuse to to invest, and when the crisis worsens, they blame it on Chavez. This is not to say that Chavez has not made mistakes. Some of his measures come across as being thought up by the IMF.”
Will there be another coup attempt? Martin Lopez, an anti-Chavez small businessman, says that the dominant tendency on both sides is to turn away from violence and towards negotiation. He is cautiously hopeful that a coming mission to promote dialogue headed by former US President Jimmy Carter will succeed.
Many are less optimistic, noting that the opposition’s main condition for starting dialogue–Chavez’ stepping down–is a non-starter.
What if there is another attempt by the opposition to violently seize power, I ask some people in the lower-class community of Nazareno, high up on one of the mountain slopes towering over downtown Caracas. Rosa Quintero, a woman of around 40 years of age, answers: “Look, we went down on April 12, not because we were looking for food or money,” referring to the lower class mobilizations that reinstalled Chavez. “We went because we were fighting for our future. And we are prepared to do it again.”
The right’s dilemma is that to reimpose control over Venezuela, it will have to do it over the dead bodies of thousands of poor people, including possibly that of Quintero. And that of Chavez, who, like his role model, is playing not only for the present but for history. “The mistake they made on April 11,” he is reported to have remarked, “is that they did not kill me. They won’t make it again. And I am prepared to die rather than betray our Bolivarian principles.”
And the US? The dilemma of Washington’s ruling unilateralists is that while there is no easy, “non-messy” way of getting rid of a democratically elected president, they cannot afford to have another Fidel Castro in the region, especially a Fidel that reigns in a country that is the US’s second biggest foreign oil supplier.
*Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, a program of the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute in Bangkok, Thailand; professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines.