DISPATCH #2 FROM VENEZUELA:
History of Chávez: Why He Upsets DCOnce upon a time, the U.S. relied on Venezuela to undermine Arab interests in OPEC. Venezuela effectively broke the Arab embargo in the early 1970's by kicking its own production into overdrive to make up for the shortfall. Chávez changed all that. His foreign policy seems tailor-made to irritate a corporate-cozy oilman such as Bush.
The inevitable bad pun is appropriate. Theres something hokey about the rhetoric and style of the opposition, which, politically muscular though it may be, feels as mass-produced and synthetic as a convenience store slurpee. At a rally tonight at Plaza Altamira, organizers trot out an anti-septic Venezuelan boy band, whose sour, pre-packaged harmonies are apparently meant to get the crowd pumped with anti-government fervor. Along the sidewalk, vendors hawk official opposition merchandise: bandanas, stickers, and keychains with slogans such as, "Prohibido olvidar." ("Never forget," referring to the 18 civilians that each side claims the other killed on April 11.)
But blocks away, standing on an island in the road, are a crowd of pro-government "Chavistas," modestly garbed and waving handwritten "Viva" placards: "Viva Chávez," "Viva la DemocracĖa Bolivariana," and so on. Drivers honk their horns in support as they pass by, and a few roll down their windows to cheer.
Being an American in Venezuela is a total through-the-looking glass experience. The upper crust are the protestors, and the poor people and minorities are fiercely pro-government. The big companies give their employees the day off, with pay, whenever there is an anti-government march, and then spend carloads of cash to promote it ad nauseam. (Today, I am handed a flyer distributed by Visión Venezuela, a telecommunications network, that reads, "You don't march alone! VV invites you to march with us for your security... Together for Liberty!") Plus, the news channels blanket the airwaves with coverage hyping the demonstration, interspersed with commercials every 15 minutes or so flashing rousing images urging people to come out to protest on "once de julio" for a United and Free Venezuela.
As Alex Main, my contact in the Venezuelan government's press office, puts it, "This is probably what the United States would look like if Ralph Nader were ever elected president." Except in that case the backlash would probably be much worse, because Chávez's domestic policies are nowhere near as progressive as Nader's.
The Thorn in Bush's Side
Once upon a time, the U.S. relied on Venezuela to undermine Arab interests in OPEC. Venezuela effectively broke the Arab embargo in the early 1970's by kicking its own production into overdrive to make up for the shortfall. Chávez changed all that. His government has cut back dramatically on production to ensure that supply won't be so quickly exhausted over the long term and that poor OPEC countries can depend on a higher base price per barrel.
On the trade front, Chávez is the first Latin American leader to take a stand against World Bank austerity programs and the "neo-liberal" trade policies of NAFTA, the WTO, and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA in the U.S., ALCA in Latin America). ALCA would be constructed along the lines of NAFTA, meaning among other things that protective tariffs would be forbidden, allowing multinational corporations to find both larger markets and cheaper labor. In practice, these agreements reinforce a system in which the abundant natural resources of Global South nations are extracted and then sent to the North, which refines and processes the product, sells it all around the world, and pockets the profit.
Venezuela is especially rich in resources; along with petroleum, it has large reserves of natural gas, gold, diamonds, bauxite, and iron ore. But according to Venezuela's Central Office of Statistics and Information (OCEI), Venezuelan poverty rose as high as 86 percent in 1996.
The bitter irony is not lost on the public, who are well-versed in the intricacies of trade policy. Chávez was able to capitalize on this. One of his pet names for neo-liberalism is "the road to hell."
ALCA is set to be drafted and voted on within five years. Chávez is probably the only major stumbling block to its passage right now, though he has inspired others waiting in the wings in neighboring Latin American countries. If Luis "Lula" da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and either Elisa Carrió or Luis Zamora, both of Argentina, win their respective elections--and they are all considered front-runners--then Chávez would be the senior member of a powerful coalition to block ALCA.
Chávez is also critical of the U.S. government's "Plan Colombia." The plan involves toxic coca crop eradication, as well as increased aid to the Colombian military, which supports the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group responsible for three quarters of the killings that have made Colombia's murder rate the highest in the world. In protest, Chávez has refused to allow the U.S. to fly over Venezuelan airspace to carry out counternarcotics operations in Colombia.
Even bolder is Chávez's relationship to Cuba. He has signed off on a series of preferential trade agreements with Cuba to help salve the wounds of decades of economic sanctions. Current Venezuelan policy is to provide Cuba with oil in exchange for doctors and medicines. But Chávez is also pushing his plan for a trans-Caribbean pipeline that would link Cuba directly to Venezuela's oil and natural gas resources. Cuba is even permitted to re-sell the oil.
Of course, Venezuela also has "special" trade arrangements with the U.S. Venezuela will increase oil output for the rest of 2002 by 400,000 barrels per day over OPEC quota to help keep oil cheap for the U.S. during its economic slump. But to Otto Reich, nothing redeems the sin of being nice to Cuba.
Reich, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, is the top U.S. policymaker for Latin America. A former Cuban, he is obsessed with ridding the earth of Fidel Castro. Bush pushed through his appointment during a Senate recess, bypassing the hearing and approval process. Among the things that would have been discussed in a hearing are Reich's Iran-Contra involvement, the General Accounting Office's censuring him for engaging in "prohibited propaganda activities" with regards to Nicaragua, and his alleged efforts to get Orlando Bosch, a terrorist convicted of killing 73 people on a Cuban jetliner, into the U.S.
From his new perch of power, Reich recently warned the Chávez government, "Break with Castro or else."
Chávez hasn't hesitated to criticize the U.S. government in his own right. Though he condemned the Trade Center attack and expressed sympathy for the U.S., he also condemned the bombing in Afghanistan, which he called "fighting terrorism with terrorism." To drive his point home, he showed pictures on Venezuelan television of Afghan civilians killed by bombs.
The Bush administration responded by temporarily recalling its ambassador to Venezuela and holding a two-day interagency meeting from November 5-7-- involving the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the State Department--on the subject of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. It has been noted that similar meetings took place before U.S.-backed coups in Chile, Iran, Guatemala, and Brazil. April 11 was five months away...
But this still doesn't explain the Venezuela-based opposition's beef. Chávez's domestic initiatives are much less provocative than his foreign policy. Many political scientists insist that he runs the country like a "moderate Social Democrat," for whom revolution is in practice mostly a colorful world to enliven speeches.
Chávez: the most loved and most hated leader in Venezuelan history
His detractors have presented him as the next Fidel, a quasi-communist "totalitarian fascist dictator." But consider: though government spending on social services such as health care, housing, and education has increased, the banking system was deregulated, and the electric utilities of Caracas and part of the prison system and public employee's pension system have all been privatized under Chávez's watch. His government is on good terms with the International Monetary Fund (though, to be sure, the IMF also cozied up to the coup leaders during their two days in power). Even his land reform policy involves the government actually paying market prices to take over and redistribute unused farmland. As land reform movements go, this is pretty mild stuff.
All in all, any balanced assessment has to view Chávez as an improvement over his recent predecessors, notorious for the thoroughness of their corruption, economic mismanagement, and casual outbursts of repression, to which the local and international media responded with hardly a bleat. So now, why are Venezuelan and U.S. information channels exhausting themselves trying to demonize Chávez?
A little background is in order.
Charlie's Tale: The 40-Year Gestation of Chávez
As Hardy explains, between the overthrow of Marcos Pérez's dictatorship in 1958 and Chávez's election in 1998, Venezuelan politics was dominated by two parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización PolĖtica Electoral Independiente (COPEI).
"It was pretty much set up so that these two parties would stay in control," Hardy says. "Whoever won in one election got government funds to finance their parties, so as a result taxpayers' money was used to subsidize exclusive two-party rule." Imagine that.
"All this was reinforced by the Constitution. This is one of the reasons, when Chávez came into power, that he wanted a new constitution: to break that system."
The system in effect allowed the two parties to maintain power through tag-team party government. Every election they would swap the presidency: from Leoni (AD), to Caldera (COPEI), to Pérez (AD), to CampĖns (COPEI), to Lusinchi (AD). "It was just like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States. You expect them to exist forever," says Hardy.
By the time of Lusinchi's presidency, an economic meltdown was looming. Lusinchi tried to diversify the economy so that it wouldn't be at the mercy of fluctuating oil prices, but ultimately he made things worse by sucking up to foreign creditors and the IMF through austerity programs and wage freezes. He managed to keep the chaos at bay through the rest of his term by controlling prices, "but when the new president, Carlos Andrés Pérez came in, they were ready to explode," says Hardy.
Pérez opened the floodgates by lifting all price controls at the same time that he tightened austerity programs in the name of "free market" reforms. But in this case free was awfully expensive, and the country's poor found that they couldn't afford to feed themselves or take the bus to work anymore.
Hardy: "What's the price of a loaf of bread in the U.S.? A dollar? Two dollars? Imagine walking into the grocery store tomorrow and a loaf of bread is six dollars. Milk is $15. If you're poor, what do you do?
"On the 27th of February, there was a popular explosion. No leaders, no organization, just the frustration of the people over the price of food and transportation. There was some looting--food, clothing, whatever you could get your hands on. And then, probably the next day, Carlos Andres Pérez sent the troops out.... It really--it was brutal.
"Did you know that, three months before Tiananmen Square, there was a massacre right here that was a lot bloodier? Had you ever heard about it?
"Over a thousand killed, bodies put in garbage bags, buried in common graves, denied they ever existed."
An important bit of context left out of all U.S. news reports about Chávez: it was Pérez's administration, responsible for the worst massacre in Venezuela's history as a democracy, that Chávez tried to overthrow in a coup.
"Simón BolĖvar (the 19th centurny Latin American liberator who is Chávez's political icon) once said, 'Damned be the soldier who uses his arms against his own people.' So Chávez (a lieutenant colonel at the time) begins meeting within a week or two of the killings with other low-ranking military officers. And in February of '92 he led a rebellion which was quickly put down: it only lasted about twelve hours.
"But they gave him permission to go on television to tell the men to put their arms down. And during those few minutes he talked: one, he accepted responsibility for the failure of the mission, and two, he said 'por ahora'--'for now'--'our objectives are not attainable.'
"I remember a barrio woman saying, 'I really think he would have been elected president that day if there'd have been an election.' And then another barrio woman said, 'I can't believe it! This is the first time I have ever heard someone accept responsibility for a failure in this country.'
"Soon the phrase 'por ahora' starting apparing all over the place, in grafitti, in signs people put in their windows, everywhere. 'For now!' 'For now!'"
Chávez was put in prison, but the next year Pérez was impeached on embezzlement charges and kicked out of office.
When Rafael Caldera was elected in 1994, he pardoned Chávez. For the next four years Chávez toured the country talking to people. Meanwhile Caldera's term was one of banking scandals, arbitrary arrests, suspensions of the freedom to travel and assemble, an austerity regime that only exacerbated rising poverty, a deteriorating economy, and rampant police brutality and prison overcrowding that culminated in a police massacre of 122 prisoners in a Maracaibo jail.
Time came for the 1998 elections, and Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe and mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao, was favored to win. But then the COPEI Party decided to endorse her as its candidate.
"It was like the kiss of death," says Hardy. Suddenly her numbers plummetted and Chávez started going up in the polls. The AD picked its own candidate, who was roundly ignored by the electorate.
"As it was getting close to the election, all the parties knew they had to do something, so they all got together and backed a guy by the name of Enrique Salas Romer, and the COPEI Party dropped Miss Universe a week before the election."
It didn't matter. Chávez won with almost 60 percent of the vote.
"Can you imagine that in the next elections in the United States, the Democrats get 2 percent of the vote, the Republicans 5 percent, and you win with almost 60 percent?
"But there's lots of vested interests there.
"A little forecast of what was going to happen was when the current Minister of Education was elected mayor of Caracas some years ago, and it was really incredible because he beat the two main parties. The campaign was just with flyers, with people talking to one another, and so on. But when he went into office, for example at City Hall he found, I think, 80 doorkeepers. Okay, but there's only one entrance. And there's only one or two on duty any time. Calculate it in terms of hours, you probably need eight or so and you could have them 24 hours a day. But every two weeks all 80 would show up for their salaries.
"That's the kind of corruption that has gone on for years here, and when you take that away, you've got a lot of people who hate you."
Apparently, this includes Larry Rohter of the New York Times. Al Giordano of Narco News Network points out in a scathing critique of U.S. correspondents in Venezuela that just after Chávez's election, Rohter declared the new president to be "authoritarian" before he had served a day in office. This buzzword would be repeated ad infinitum up to the present.
The anti-Chávez rhetoric was taken up a few notches when Bush was elected. While the chads were still fresh, Tad Szulc in the Los Angeles Times warned, "The improbable but fast-growing friendship of three career military revolutionaries--Fidel Castro of Cuba, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela--poses an urgent challenge to U.S. interests worldwide and to President-elect George W. Bush."
The hint was taken further on the eve of Bush's inauguration by Carlos Ball of the Cato Institute, a conservative thinktank that greatly influences Republican policy. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed brazenly titled, "Hugo Chávez, a New Allende in South America?," Ball waxed nostalgic about Venezuela's days under Marcos Pérez's dictatorship ("Venezuelans were then much better off than their parents had been, and the future looked bright.") before condemning the "Marxist rhetoric of Mr. Chávez" and concluding, "The new Caracas-Havana axis will be President Bush's first hemispheric challenge."
But veiled thinktank threats were nothing compared to the invective hurled Chávez's way by the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, though he certainly egged them on. "These people hate and go on hating," says Hardy. "And it's not just right now, it's something that's been building up and building up over the years. So basically any law that Chávez would want would not be acceptable. He can say, 'It's a nice day,.' and they're gonna say, 'Its a miserable day.'"
Now, on the eve of the July 11 march, the anti-Chávez rhetoric is getting increasingly violent. In the last couple of weeks, Anibal Romero, a columnist for the anti-Chávez daily El Nacional, called the president "a cancer that must be eradicated even at the cost of a civil war."
Three days ago, Jose Antonio Gil, a partner in a polling firm, told the L.A. Times, "There is only one way out of the political crisis surrounding President Hugo Chavez--he has to be killed.... The best Chávez Frias is a dead Chávez Frias."
A contact in the American embassy in Caracas recently told me that when his family had a prominent opposition figure over for dinner and the topic turned to Chávez, the guest spat, "I'd like to put a bullet in his head."
And then there's Alfredo Peña, the anti-Chávez mayor of Caracas whose police force killed dozens of civilians in the wake of the April 11 coup, according to Human Rights Watch. It seems that Chávez has closed off the area immediately surrounding Miraflores from tomorrow's demonstrators, to avoid a repeat of April 11. Now U.S. authorities have restricted freedom of movement during assemblies through the permit process for some time, though I've never been sympathetic to this. Chávez had to conjure up a dusty old Venezuelan law to enable him to do the same thing, but Peña challenged his authority to do so, saying that the law doesn't apply in this case and the marchers will be able to get as close to Miraflores as they want--and to make sure they do, they will be escorted by several hundred members of his armed police force.
Hardy begs me to skip the demonstation tomorrow and leave early in the morning for Mérida, where a friend (and my next interpreter) is waiting to meet up with me.
"They're expecting the worst tomorrow," he says. But not going is simply not possible. Besides, I reassure him, the world--and Chávez's supporters--are watching very closely this time.
I expect to be underwhelmed.
In the taxi, we ask our driver what he thinks of all the hoopla around tomorrow's march.
"The opposition leaders are the ones provoking all this," he says, "but if anyone falls, it will be the people they get to march for them.
"Do you believe the ones who are doing all this--Peña, Ortega--do you think they're going to be marching in the front? No, right?"
TO BE CONTINUED
Brad Carlton is an investigative journalist based in Spartansburg, SC. He will be posting further dispatches from Venezuela during his month-long tour of that country.
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This story was published on July 28, 2002.