Venezuela - A Nation DividedSunday, 29 October 2006
Exactly one month before we’re due to fly home to England, there are elections in Venezuela. In England, people who feel really passionate about an election may put a small poster in their window. Out here, the lines are drawn more clearly and displayed much more extravagantly. With just over 5 weeks to go, the election pot is starting to bubble nicely. Red pill takers, please read on…..
There are only two realistic candidates for the presidency. The first is Hugo Chavez, the charismatic and controversial President of Venezuela since 1998, when he won a landslide victory as support for the two long-established traditional parties, Copei and Acción Democrática, collapsed amid allegations of corruption and cronyism. Before looking at the significant opposition in 2006, here’s a very brief summary of recent Venezuelan political history.
THE RISE OF A PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT
Born in Sabaneta near Barinas in July 1954, Hugo Chavez has a strong military background, joining the army at the age of 17 in 1971. Initially inspired to enlist by a love of baseball, Chavez also had a love of history and read a lot about men like Simon Bolivar, who led the forces which liberated much of South America from the Spanish colonialists (almost all Venezuelan cities and towns have a plaza or at least a monument or statue dedicated to Bolivar and today the Bolivar is the national currency). Then, in 1974, Chavez visited Peru as a Venezuelan military representative at a ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Ayacucho, a key turning point in the liberation struggles. These and other influences started to form ideas which would develop into Chavez’s vision for a Bolivarian revolution in which South America would escape from US economic imperialism and become a global economic force in its own right for the benefit of its own people, especially the indigenous poor.
Chavez started to connect with other radical officers in the armed forces to discuss a fairer Venezuela, free of political corruption, and the means by which this might be achieved. At least once, his superiors became aware of the threat Chavez posed and stationed him in a remote region of the country. Then, in 1989, a series of events occurred which spelt the beginning of the end for the old ruling parties. Together with many other developing nations, Venezuela was discovering that the real price of “foreign investment” and loans from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF) was that the lender then became the master and the receiving nation had to assume the role of economic slave. In February 1989, as part of one such neo-liberal economic package, petrol prices doubled overnight, resulting in a similar increase in bus fares. For the poor workers from the shanty towns or ranchos around Caracas and beyond, this was the final straw. Without any prior organisation, there were spontaneous street protests which led to looting and rioting reaching right into the wealthy residential areas of the capital. The riots spread to other cities like Maracay, Valencia and Mérida (where I’m typing this article). The Caracazo protests were quelled in the end by fierce military repression but a warning had been sounded and Hugo Chavez took note. A fellow officer, tasked with bringing certain areas under control, told his men that, “the people who live here are like us, they are the people, our brothers……no one must shoot unless we are attacked.”
A FAILED COUP
In 1992, Chavez led a military coup which failed but the government made the mistake of giving him just over a minute of TV exposure to ask his co-conspirators to lay down their arms to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. This he did, but he also used a phrase which caught the imagination of the Venezuelan people. He said that the coup’s objectives had not been achieved por ahora or “for the moment”. The phrase, used unintentionally, gave the people hope that a time would come when the old regime would pass away and a government might arise to represent the ordinary people. Meanwhile Chavez was imprisoned for his role in the coup but even one of the old regime’s most senior figures, ex-President Rafael Caldera, gave a speech which could be interpreted as supporting the intentions of the coup, speaking of the government’s responsibility “to make the immediate changes that the country is demanding”. In 1994, a little over 2 years later, Chavez was released and started in earnest his quest to gain power by democratic means.
THE PATH TO THE PRESIDENCY
Chavez wanted to overthrow the old regime and the corrupt party (and indeed union) system so he wanted to avoid simply starting a new political party. He set about gathering a loose coalition of like-minded people, opposed to US neo-liberal policies and interested in righting the economic imbalance in the country, and encouraged the people to organise themselves into campaigning units or Bolivarian circles. His campaigning organisation was called the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR, quinta meaning fifth and the v being the Roman numeral for five) and in December 1998 Chavez won with over 3.5 million votes or 56.2% of those who voted. It was time to find out if Venezuela was truly ready for a political revolution.
POPULAR REFORMS AND A POWERFUL OPPOSITION
Since his election in 1998, Chavez has made many radical changes, too much for the rich and powerful, and perhaps too few for those on the far left. He has introduced policies or ‘missions’ to: increase opportunities for education and adult literacy; provide adequate health facilities even in the poorest areas; attempt to reverse the damaging migration of Venezuelans from rural areas to the cities in the north of the country; increase the percentage of oil revenues retained in Venezuela for the benefit of its people; and reverse the previous government’s plan to privatise the social security system. He has also enshrined indigenous people’s rights in a new constitution and changed the country’s foreign policy to build links with a loose alliance of nations opposed to US world domination. Under Chavez, the country has been renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The speed and scope of the changes was bound to stir up opposition among those whose interests were best served by maintaining the status quo and, in 2002, the first of 3 attempts was made to remove Chavez from power.
RICH MAN’S COUP
In early 2002, a strange coalition of business interests, media moguls, trade unionists, religious leaders and conservative military officers started to plot his removal. The atmosphere in Caracas has been described as being like the one in Santiago, Chile, before the US-backed coup which removed another democratically-elected socialist leader, Salvador Allende, and led to the cruel dictatorship of General Pinochet. Incidentally, that coup happened on 11 September 1973 and led to hundreds if not thousands of deaths and “disappearances”, not to mention those who were ‘merely’ tortured. This, however, is the 9/11 which North Americans conveniently choose to forget. In Caracas in April 2002, the opposition (with US knowledge and silent sanction): orchestrated street violence and misrepresented it in the media (lies then repeated by senior members of the US administration); forced Chavez to surrender with the Presidential Palace under threat of tank fire; blocked Channel 8, the state-owned and only pro-Chavez TV station; used the privately-owned TV stations to tell the people Chavez had resigned (he hadn’t); and swore in a new President (Pedro Carmona, a sort of Venezuelan equivalent of the leader of the Confederation of British Industry) and a new government in a farcical ceremony which kept mentioning ‘democracy’ without a hint of irony. Via Radio Havana and, ironically, CNN, the people of Venezuela gradually discovered that Chavez had not resigned and that the coup plotters had trashed their new constitution. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, demanding the return of their President. The President’s Honour Guard seized the palace, arrested many of the plotters and in the early hours of Sunday morning, barely 48 hours after the coup ‘succeeded’, commando units brought Chavez back to Caracas by helicopter. At no time during the ‘counter-coup’ did the TV networks show what was happening, choosing instead to show cartoons and old movies. These are the people now accusing Chavez of media censorship. Finally, the anti-Chavez Supreme Court ruled that there hadn’t been a coup but merely a ‘power vacuum’ and all of the leaders of the coup were released without charge.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
The rich and powerful, especially when backed by the world’s only remaining superpower, aren’t use to not getting their own way and soon they were on the attack again. In December 2002, they organised a general strike and sabotage at the state oil company. When this failed, they demanded a recall referendum in August 2004 in which Chavez was supported by over 59% of the electorate. This was effectively his sixth resounding electoral victory in under six years, but this is not democratic enough for his opponents who appear to measure democracy directly in terms of how it benefits them.
THE OPPOSITION IN 2006
Realising the huge support Chavez enjoys among the poor (who make up 80% of Venezuela’s population), the opposition has been wise enough to choose a compromise candidate to represent the vast majority of those opposed to the President. Manuel Rosales will probably get many of his votes for whom he opposes rather than the principles or policies for which he stands. Aware of Chavez’s powerbase, he has been campaigning in poorer areas and promising oil money to the poor. A cynic might ask why he’s the first conservative candidate for several decades to show a real interest in the poor. Even conservatives begrudgingly acknowledge that some of Chavez’s reforms have been good for the country, so Rosales is also campaigning on a relatively moderate manifesto. The reality, however, is that you are either a friend or foe of the US, there is no middle ground (for example, when almost 100% of Turkey’s population opposed the use of Turkish bases for US warplanes to attack Iraq, the US threatened sanctions and Donald Rumsfeld even suggested that the military should overrule the people and the government and ‘do the right thing’). One current election poster shows Rosales shaking hands with Pedro Carmona (failed leader of the 2002 coup) with the slogan el Diablo los une (roughly translated as “the devil has brought them together”).
WHAT DO THE PEOPLE OF MÉRIDA THINK?
The people of Mérida, like the rest of Venezuela, are deeply divided over Hugo Chavez. To some, he is almost a God or a saviour. To others, he is almost the devil, out to steal and destroy everything they’ve worked hard to gather. Few people I’ve spoken to shrug their shoulders or express neutrality, although some Chavez supporters have inevitably grown a bit lukewarm 8 years into his presidency. I’ve experienced this deep divide when wearing my “Viva Chavez” t-shirt around town! The nearest British equivalent I can think of is Margaret Thatcher who divided the UK on similar lines and aroused similar adoration and hatred. One interesting discovery is that even the pro-Morales people think that Bush is crazy and/or bad.
It’s impossible to miss the difference between the supporters of each candidate. Thus far, I’ve seen Chavez supporters distributing posters, stickers and literature from a small gazebo in the town centre and seen the same posters and stickers on houses in the poorer areas and on cars with little chance of passing an MOT test. In contrast, I have seen one pro-Morales parade down Avenida de las Americas in which well-dressed, well-groomed, light-skinned and quite obviously wealthy Venezuelans drove past waving flags and hooting the horns of their shiny new 4x4s. As the campaigns increase in intensity, no doubt anomalies will occur and I’ll update this issue in due course.
fivE LOCALS’ VIEWS
I’ve spoken to several local people and here I’m going to describe five people’s thoughts on the election and/or the candidates (being a beginner in Spanish the conversations were sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanglish and occasionally in painstaking Spanish – 4 of the 5 are men because I don’t want to be badly misunderstood by local non-English speaking women who’d think I had anything but amateur journalistic intentions).
I spoke to a local businessman from a Spanish family who run a restaurant in the local shopping mall. When I said, “I guess you’re not a big Chavez fan”, he summed up his opinion very succinctly. “I hate Chavez”. The words ‘business’ and ‘Spanish’ are the clues here.
Next up is a well-educated 15-year-old student who came out for a meal with us. Expecting a lot of him, I was quite disappointed to find that he held fairly stereotypical middle-class views. He believes quite sincerely that the rich are rich because they work hard and the poor are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. So much for the poor souls who sweated to extract the rich minerals from South America only to be paid slave wages. Presumably their bosses were working harder than them! He’s also afraid that Chavez is putting Venezuelans at risk by standing up to Bush and the US.
One of the security guards at our complex is a dedicated Chavista, believing that Chavez is the only option for the vast majority of poorer ordinary Venezuelans. Often, as I leave the flats, I’m greeted by some words or gesture of solidarity and he’s very pleased that we’re going to be here for the elections.
One of the male students I met in town by the Chavez gazebo conceded that the election was going to be closer than the previous ones, but remained quietly confident, hoping that the poor will turn up en masse and vote for their man.
Finally, an English-speaking French Canadian selling jewellery in a street market summed it all up by saying that Venezuela is made up of the rich and the rest (with people presumably voting accordingly).
If the people of Venezuela vote according to purely economic interest, Hugo Chavez should enjoy further electoral success on 3 December, but it would be foolish to write off a well-financed opposition which is being supported by most of the Venezuelan and much of the international press. Occasionally Chavez will make unwise comments and make unwise (if not ethically bad) alliances and this is fuel to the fire of those who wish to make him out to be crazy and/or dangerous. Well, whatever the outcome, the red pill crew will be here in Venezuela to keep you informed.
Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott (Verso)
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Irish Documentary on DVD
Near the end, this article was prepared to the sound of my youngest son singing, “Uh, ah, Chavez no se va” (“Ooh, ah, Chavez, don’t go!”), a popular chant from the many Chavez supporters during the protests after the anti-Chavez coup in 2002.