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Hugo Chavez

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Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

29 June 2009

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

By Gwynne Dyer

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has declared that any attack on his country’s embassy in Honduras will lead to war between the two nations, and I can’t help wishing that the Hondurans would call his bluff. The Venezeluan blowhard is getting tiresome.

In the first of the “Dirty Harry” movies, thirty years ago, Clint Eastwood achieved immortality with a single line. Pointing a very large pistol at an evil-doer (as George W. Bush might have put it), he addresses the miscreant, who is thinking about reaching for his own gun, as follows: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Hugo Chavez is more a well-meaning idiot than an evil-doer, but the question is the same: will he really go for his gun? The answer is no. He’s not a complete idiot, and his threats to attack other Latin American countries whose behaviour offends him (the most recent was Colombia, last year) always fade away after a while.

What provoked Chavez’s threat was the removal of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who had become Chavez’s close ally. Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military, bundled into a plane and flown to Costa Rica on 28 June.

Elected to a single term as president in 2006, Zelaya astonished friend and foe alike by turning out to be not the centre-right, business-friendly politician he had seemed. Instead, he began moving steadily to the left in his domestic policies, and linked Honduras diplomatically with the other socialist governments in Latin America.

There is no doubt that he caused deep annoyance to the conservative elite who have traditionally dominated Honduran affairs, but they made no move to overthrow him. Why bother? The constitution limits Honduran presidents to one four-year term in office, and Zelaya’s term comes to an end next January.

No other leftist candidate was likely to win the presidential election that is due in November: recent opinion polls suggested that Zelaya’s support nationally is down to around 30 percent. Even Zelaya’s own party was unlikely to nominate another leftist as his successor, and many of its members no longer supported him. So all the major political forces were content to wait for the clock to run out on him — until he started trying to change the constitution.

Zelaya’s bright idea was to end the one-term limit so he could run for president again himself. It’s exactly the same tactic that Chavez has used in Venezuela to prolong his rule indefinitely (he now talks about being in power until 2030), and Zelaya believed, rightly or wrongly, that he could make it work for him in Honduras. So he set about organising a referendum on the subject. It was scheduled for last Sunday.

Alas, the president of Honduras does not have the right to organize a referendum all by himself, and the country’s Supreme Court ordered him to stop. Congress also condemned the manoeuvre, but Zelaya plowed ahead regardless. When the army, obedient to the Supreme Court’s orders, refused to help Zelaya run the referendum, he fired the army’s commanding general and got his own party activists to distribute the ballot boxes.

At that point, Congress voted to remove Zelaya because of his “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders and judgments of the institutions,” and the Supreme Court ordered the army to intervene and arrest the president. It was a mistake to put him on a plane bound for Costa Rica, as that made it look like a traditional Central American coup, but apart from that everything was done within the law.

The speaker of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who has taken over until the November elections, insists that he has become interim president “as the result of an absolutely legal transition process.” Chavez and his Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and Cuban allies claim it’s a military coup, and insist that the United States is behind it.

Washington, which wasn’t paying much attention until last Sunday, has been bounced into backing Zelaya too, as has the Organisation of American States, whose secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, has promised to accompany Zelaya in a grand return to Honduras. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the events in Honduras as a coup, and for all we know she might accompany Zelaya too.

If Chavez decided to go along too, they would have enough people for a game of celebrity bridge, but all this posturing won’t change anything. It might be different if the next Honduran election were years away and there was time for diplomatic and economic pressures to wear the legitimate Honduran authorities down, but it’s only five months until the 29th of November.

So long as that election is conducted properly, other countries will have no grounds to reject its outcome — and Zelaya is constitutionally barred from running again. End of story.

Unless Chavez actually attacks Honduras, that is, but it is a long way from Venezuela and Chavez’s forces are not really equipped or trained for amphibious assaults or long-range air-drops. You can almost hear the Honduran soldiers muttering “Go ahead, make my day.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“In the first…for awhile”)

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”)

One-Third of the West

14 December 2002

One-Third of the West

By Gwynne Dyer

Thirty people are injured by a bomb in Bogota, in an incident that will become commonplace as Colombia’s seemingly endless guerilla war moves into the cities. (Thanks, Irish Republican Army, for showing us how the pros do it. Before, we just used to massacre peasants in villages.)

Two-thirds of Argentina’s population live in abject poverty a century after it was the world’s most popular destination for emigrants hoping to better their lives. Then, per capita income in Argentina was $2,800 a year, among the highest in the world; now, it is down to $2,500, just ahead of Bulgaria. It is a reasonably safe bet that in twenty years’ time Bulgaria, scheduled to join the European Union in 2007, will have three times Argentina’s average income.

Venezuela is entering its third week of confrontation between the populist president, Hugo Chavez, re-elected by a landslide majority less than three years ago, and the strikers in the state oil industry. The strikers have the backing of the old political elite and desperate middle-class Venezuelans who fear that Chavez’s erratic attempts to do something for the poor majority will ruin what little is left of their own prosperity, and the battle may end up in the streets. No other oil-rich country except Nigeria contrives to have such a huge gap between rich and poor.

Fidel Castro’s worn-out dictatorship is still hanging on in Cuba after more than four decades in power. Lucio Gutierrez, jailed after a failed coup two years ago, was elected president of Ecuador last month. The crusading priest-politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide, overthrown by brutal generals in Haiti and then restored to the presidency after a long campaign by North American sympathisers, turns out to be just as incompetent and thuggish as his opponents always claimed. What is wrong with Latin America?

Most Latin Americans at the moment place the blame on neo-liberal economic policies imposed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund, but Latin America’s backwardness and political failure long predate the latest economic fashion. In fact, those neo-liberal policies did actually produce crude economic growth, which was quite high in the region during the 90s.

The problem is rather that this is the region with the highest income disparities in the world: per capita income of the top fifth of Brazilian households is more than thirty times greater than the bottom fifth. Poverty is so widespread that even if Latin American economies grew by 4 percent a year for the next decade, according to the World Bank, only half of the region’s people would be lifted out of extreme poverty.

That is longer than most people are willing to wait, so there is a region-wide revolt against the neo-liberal orthodoxy, with populist politicians offering vaguely socialist nostrums winning power in one country after another. Some, like Brazil’s president-elect Luis Inacio da Silva (‘Lula’), are serious and legitimate figures. Others, like Hugo Chavez, are charismatic charlatans. But the whole region is clearly changing course yet again, in another flailing, desperate attempt to escape its fate as the ne’er-do-well country cousin of the West.

Latin America IS part of the West, despite the ‘Third World’ rhetoric that has tended to obscure that fact for the past half-century. By history, language, ethnicity and religion, it is just as much a part of the West as the United States or Italy. Its half-billion people account for fully a third of the total population of the West; they just happen to be the poor third. Why?

It cannot be the particular part of Europe from which they take their languages and political traditions. Spain and Portugal, Europe’s richest countries four hundred years ago, went through a long and painful decline as their empires withered, but today they are prosperous and democratic countries. Nor can it be Latin America’s Catholic religious traditions: there is no longer any significant gap in prosperity and political stability between the Catholic south and the Protestant north of Germany, or between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England.

It can’t be the ethnic mix, either. A number of Latin American countries are almost entirely European in population, but the most successful ones, at least half of all Mexicans are part-Indian, and 40 percent of Brazilians are part-African.

Most of these countries made their first attempts at democratic revolution in the early nineteenth century, no later than most other parts of the West. They have never been cut off from the intellectual and political trends that swept the rest of the West. And you really can’t blame the Americans for it all. “Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States,” said Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz a century ago, but Mexico is now enjoying a pattern of growth that will make it a serious rival to Germany in less than a generation.

So what is the real reason that Latin America doesn’t work like the rest of the West? I’m afraid I have no idea. Tell me it’s corruption, military coups, poor education, and I’ll just ask you why they persisted in Latin America long after they declined elsewhere in the West. The one consoling thought is that Brazil and Mexico, the countries that seem likeliest to escape from the pattern, make up over half the total population of Latin America.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“That is…West”; and “It can’t…part-African”)