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Politics

Chavez and Venezuela

8 August 2004

The Nicer Peron: Chavez and Venezuela

By Gwynne Dyer

It is Hugo Chavez’s own fault that he faces a referendum on his rule next Sunday (15 August), because he wrote the clause about a recall vote into the Venezuelan constitution himself. His enemies, who include practically everybody with money in Venezuela, are hoping to use it to eject him from the presidency two years early. The opinion polls differ wildly, but here’s a prediction. Chavez will be in power for a long time — and as time passes, he will become as great a curse for Venezuela as Juan Peron was for Argentina.

Hugo Chavez is a much nicer man than Juan Peron. He has all of Peron’s skill in the art of populist rabble-rousing, but he is a sincere social democrat where Peron was a cynical fascist. Unfortunately, Chavez has also polarised Venezuela as Peron polarised Argentina — maybe even more so, for his obvious Amerindian and African ancestry adds a racial dimension to the class conflict in Venezuela (where most of the rich are white and many of the poor are mixed-race) that was largely absent in Argentina.

He has an uncompromising line in rhetoric, too: “The real rivals we are facing (in this referendum) are the imperialist forces….They will not take our oil!” Venezuela is the fifth-largest oil producer in the world, and most of its exports go to the United States, so it is no secret that the Bush administration would like to see Chavez gone. But the real problem is that he has divided Venezuelan society so deeply that almost any extreme outcome — even a military coup or a civil war — has become imaginable.

Venezuelan society was already divided before Chavez. The country preserved the forms of democracy through the 60s, 70s and 80s, when most South American countries fell to right-wing military coups, but in practice power just passed back and forth between two deeply corrupt traditional parties that might as well have been called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The oil wealth circulated among a few million privileged Venezuelans while the excluded majority lived in poverty, and the political system was rigged to keep it that way.

Chavez’s parents were teachers who got one foot on the ladder through education, and he climbed higher through becoming an army officer, but he always burned with resentment at how Venezuela was run. As a young colonel in 1992 he launched a military coup that ended in bloody defeat, but made his name among the poor. When he emerged from jail, he founded the Movement for the Fifth Republic, and began his campaign for the presidency. He won it in 1998, and after re-writing the constitution won it again in 2000.

Unfortunately, his reckless rhetoric terrified the rich: he talked of the senior executives of the national oil company “living in luxury chalets where they perform orgies, drinking whisky,” and declared that the Catholic bishops of Venezuela “do not walk in the path of Christ.” He alienated the US government with high-profile visits to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He imported 10,000 Cuban doctors to extend free medical service to the poor in urban slums and the countryside. And so the attempts to unseat him began.

The first was a military coup in April, 2002, reversed after 24 hours when masses of Chavez’s supporters flooded the streets of Caracas. (The Bush administration officially denied involvement, but it recognised the ‘new government’ with unseemly speed, and then had to accept Chavez’s return.) In December, 2002 the pampered employees of the state oil company walked out in an attempt to cut the flow of oil revenues and bring Chavez down, but he won the confrontation, fired many of the strikers, and started diverting much of the oil income into ‘missions’ to combat illiteracy, provide employment and distribute cheap food to the poor.

That was when the opposition parties (which control most of the mass media) began to demand a recall referendum. After a year-long legal struggle over whether they had gathered enough valid signatures, the electoral authorities declared in May that the requisite 20 percent of registered voters had signed the petition, and the referendum was scheduled for 15 August. If Chavez loses, a new presidential election will be held next month.

But he almost certainly won’t lose. Only 2.4 million signatures were needed for the referendum, but at least 3.7 million people (more than voted for Chavez in 2000) must now vote against him for the recall to succeed. Besides, he would just run for president again next month — the constitution does not explicitly forbid it — and he would probably win again. And again. He is still young enough to blight Venezuelan politics for decades to come.

Chavez is a man of passionate conviction who is loved and hated to extremes. Emphasising the gulf between the privileged and the poor in Venezuela is no crime if it is a step on the road to closing it, but his impulsiveness and poor follow-through offer little hope that he will achieve that goal. Instead, he has become the intensely romantic incarnation of the class war in Venezuela.

The parallel with Juan Peron is not perfect: Chavez is neither a cynic nor a scoundrel. But like Peron, his charismatic presence prevents the emergence of a more practical and moderate reform movement and drives establishment conservatives into furious resistance. The result, as in Argentina from the mid-forties to the mid-seventies, may be a prolonged period of political paralysis punctuated by outbreaks of violence.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“He has…imaginable”;and “Chavez…Venezuela”)