Venezuela: Hugo Chavez, with his cult of personality and his tirades against the US, is a product of the collapse of a corrupt political system, which for years condoned the existence of millions of poor people. In normal countries, there are no Chavezes
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Hugo Chavez (photo: Bernardo Londoy)

Voyage to South America – Part 2

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 29, 06

CARACAS. Like a giant worm, Caracas, capital of Venezuela, slithers across 25 kilometers from east to west, to the slopes of the ever-green Mount Avila. A gray tropical cloud hangs over the megalopolis at about half the mountain’s elevation, closing it in like a pressure cooker. On the map, Caracas looks like one city with relatively clear boundaries. In real life, though, it is two cities: Caracas of the lower depths and Caracas on high. Two cities, almost two countries, with no connection between them; in fact, they are almost in a state of war. One Caracas is the city of “the haves,” who account for about 20 percent of the population. The other Caracas is the city of the “have-nots,” the remaining 80 percent, half of whom are poor and half of whom are destitute. If you decide to visit the upper crust of Caracas, you had better bring a wallet, because there, money talks. Without money, you have no meaning. If you decide to visit Caracas of the lower depths, you had better bring a great deal of patience, and more, a great deal of sympathy for Hugo Chavez Frias, who is officially considered the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but in practice is viewed as the savior of Caracas’s downtrodden.

Caracas, population five million, has the highest growth rate of any city in South America in the past half century. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished Venezuelans immigrated to the capital from elsewhere in the country, settling mainly in the western part of the city. The eastern section has remained the city of the rich.

The road from Caracas’s international airport to the city itself passes through the most brutally poor neighborhoods. The radio plays endless heartbreaking love songs. “How beautiful are your eyes,” croons one singer. “How I miss your hands,” sighs another. And so it continues for two hours without a break. The atmosphere is tropical-Caribbean, somewhat Cuban. Rain patters relentlessly, the air is hot and moist, and the old two-lane road is flooded. Men walk around shirtless, and the women, even those who can’t afford it, wear body-clinging tank tops.

In the eastern city people speak softly; here, they shout. The closer we come to the city, the more chaotic the picture becomes. Children in sandals stand idly by their cardboard homes. Real cardboard, as in cardboard boxes, the kind that almost crumbles in the incessant rain. The streets become busier and busier, and the eye cannot take in the overload of details. President Chavez recently declared that every person has the right to exist, and to that end he also has the right to sell whatever he wants wherever he pleases. The result is that the streets of the city’s western section, the lower depths, have become one vast bazaar where everything is for sale. In the eastern city the streets are clean and quiet, and one barely sees anyone walking in them. Here, though, the world is one of street life.

Shoes, shoelaces, coffee, pineapple, videos, rags, shirts, popsicles – booth after booth, and deep into the road. It is not clear where the sidewalk ends and the road begins. In the eastern city the buildings are tall and the cars are new. Here the structures are squat and dense, many of them built by the residents themselves. Sewage flows in the streets, there is constant noise from car horns and people shouting, sidewalks and streets alike are potholed, and piles of refuse are heaped on every other corner. The deeper one forays into the lower depths of Caracas, the more vintage North American cars one finds. But these are not collectors’ items. Dodges and Chevrolets from the 40s, 50s and 60s, cars that have been through numberless accidents, are the most common. With a plastic bag instead of a windshield, a warped hanger instead of an antenna, stuck in an endless traffic jam, Latin love songs playing full-blast – this is life in the poor quarters of the capital of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

100 percent Chavez

Caracas slum (photo: jmaldona)

Caracas slum (photo: jmaldona)

It was against this background that, in 1998, a rather unusual character, Hugo Chavez by name, came to power. The former paratroop colonel, who was behind a failed coup attempt in 1992, won a landslide victory in the elections. “At first everyone supported him,” says a journalist on a leading paper, who asked not to be identified by name. “He was like Fidel Castro in Cuba, with tremendous promise.” In particular, Chavez promised to overhaul the corrupt political system, which then consisted of two main parties, social-democrats and Christian-democrats, which held power on an almost rotating basis. However, the system imploded under the burden of a continuing crisis in the economic situation and surging alienation between the politicians and the voting public. Forty years of democracy had brought Venezuelans almost no benefits.

In the 1970s, Venezuela, thanks to its oil reserves, had the highest per capita income of any country in South America. But because of the oil – called the “devil’s excrement” on the continent – Venezuela never developed an industrial base. Its economy rests on oil exports and the import of merchandise of all sorts, and to this day it is difficult to find locally made products. However, the fall in the price of oil in the 1980s generated a harsh economic crisis; in the mid-1990s the per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was at the same level as three decades earlier. Salaries plummeted and the poverty rate climbed from 36 percent in 1984 to 66 percent in 1995; the proportion of the destitute increased from 11 percent to 36 percent. Attempts to foment economic recovery through the “neoliberal recipe,” which was tried across the continent, led to social unrest and, eventually, to the rise of Chavez.

The new president began to lose the support of the middle and upper classes, mainly because he tightened relations with Castro and because of his authoritarian style. Tension peaked in a coup attempt in 2002, which was backed by popular protest but was, in the end, led by army officers, who did not understand the intensity of the love the residents of Caracas’s lower depths feel for their earthly messiah. In an unprecedented act, they took to the streets and succeeded in getting Chavez back into office within just 48 hours.

Since then, relations between the two parts of Caracas have been effectively severed. In some of the poor neighborhoods defiant graffiti have been scrawled on the walls: “Here we are 100 percent Chavez!” Commercials on Venezuelan state television, Channel 8, calls for “war against the landowners,” literally. And the more violent the anti-Chavez rhetoric in the country’s private media and the international media, the more his supporters seem to embrace him and rebuff all criticism.

The citizen commander

Chavez merchandise (photo: Nicholas Laughlin)

Chavez merchandise (photo: Nicholas Laughlin)

The central newscast of Channel 8 – if newscast is the right word – recalls the bad times of the Cold War. For minutes at a time, the newscasters read communiques from “the Communications and Information Ministry of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” which accuse Chavez’s opponents of fascist behavior. Every other item welcomes the “revolutionary process” which Chavez is leading. In fact, this whole country is effectively Chavez: wherever you turn here, in the lower depths of Caracas, the face of the leader, the “citizen-commander,” as he is called on television, looks out at you. Small posters on electricity poles, graffiti, and above all a huge billboard on the rapid express route that crosses Caracas, show Chavez embracing an elderly woman, the eyes of both of them closed, in a consoling religious posture. “Socialism is possible,” the billboard asserts, below the image.

According to Cristina Marcano, co-author (with Alberto Barrera Tyszka) of a biography of Chavez, he did not, overall, change the country’s economic system. Venezuela and Cuba have nothing in common. “There is a lot of socialist rhetoric,” she says, “and a lot of slogans. But there is no socialism here.” In contrast to Castro, Chavez did not ban opposition parties and did not abridge the right of free expression: the Venezuelan private media carry criticism that is as fierce as anything available in Israel or any other democracy. Indeed, journalists say that whereas on state television there is only pro-Chavez propaganda, the rest of the media carry only anti-Chavez propaganda. Still, all the journalists who work for media outlets that are characterized as anti-Chavez asked that their names not be used in this article.

Things are better now, right?

Caracas (photo: Xavier Donat)

Caracas (photo: Xavier Donat)

Despite all this, Marcano says, the big difference between Chavez and the previous administrations is the attempt to arrive at a more equitable distribution of the state’s revenues. In the past few years Venezuela has benefited from the renewed surge in oil prices, and those revenues have been channeled at least in part to the have-nots. Since 2003 the state has launched 13 “missions” – social projects geared to enhance the level of education, health, housing and nutrition of millions of people, who previously could only dream of such services. But even beyond this, Chavez is giving the poor one simple thing: a feeling of belonging and pride. At long last, they are part of the country; at long last they are no longer in the lower depths, at least in feeling.

Suffice it to look at Marina, a Chavez supporter and social activist in the Santa Rosalia neighborhood, to sense that pride, which is translated back into uncompromising adulation for “the beloved president, Hugo Chavez Frias.” Marina, a touching women who calls herself “the revolutionary,” is a member of the neighborhood committee, which collects complaints from residents and tries to deal with them. Immediately she describes the achievements of the “revolutionary process,” a term she repeats every couple of minutes. Here it is, in one of the buildings in the heart of an especially shabby area – a soup kitchen for the needy. The list of those entitled to free meals is very impressive: children aged two to fourteen, street children, the mentally ill and the elderly – all can now get a hot meal here. One can only imagine what they would do without this. And here is a school that was cleaned and renovated, and now the students are here until the afternoon, and receive a hot lunch. “Isn’t it true that things are better now?” Marina asks/tells four teenagers. “And thanks to whom? Thanks to the revolutionary process of our beloved president, Hugo Chavez Frias!”

Chavez’s opponents are skeptical about the level of studies in the schools of the “missions” and are concerned about the indoctrination that goes on in their classrooms. There is also criticism of the general management of these projects, about the absence of transparency and of the fact that there is no neutral oversight of the budgets that are transferred to them. But in a flash, when one enters the Cuban clinic in Santa Rosalia, everything becomes clear.

Three or four physicians from Cuba reside in this small, two-story building. Their presence in the country is controversial and leads to accusations that Chavez is turning Venezuela into an old-style Communist dictatorship. The physicians, all women, and graduates of medical faculties, are dressed in white. They work during the day and reside on the second floor, so that if anyone should need medical assistance in the middle of the night all he has to do is knock on the door. “You have to understand,” says the health correspondent of one of the country’s largest papers, “this is the first time that the poorest of the poor have ever had access to a physician. Until now they lacked that basic right.”

Before the advent of Chavez, the residents of Caracas’s lower depths were barely considered people. They were “nada” (nothing) and lived in “Nada-Land.” Now Chavez is building them small private homes, for free. Outside, opposite the clinic, is a stand with a public telephone. A woman sits beneath a lean-to with an old-fashioned telephone in her hand. There are no mobile phones here. Inside, one of the physicians shows the medicine cabinet, which contains dozens of small bottles carrying inscriptions in tiny, cramped handwriting. The physicians say they treat classic problems – headaches, respiratory inflammations and many problems related to blood pressure. They have an instrument to measure blood pressure, a refrigerator, a bed for treatments and also a mini-waiting room. A true clinic, a poor people’s clinic.

“In normal countries, there are no Chavezes,” says Abel Gilbert, the Latin American correspondent of the Spanish newspaper El Periodico and the author of five books about the continent. Chavez, he says, with his cult of personality, his incessant tirades against the United States and his confrontational character, is a product of the collapse of a corrupt political system, which for decades condoned the existence of millions of poor people who were largely illiterate and had no access to education, health or proper housing.

Venezuela, he adds, is an abnormal country. It is rich beyond imagination, its production of three million barrels of oil a day bringing in annual revenues of $30 billion, more than Kuwait. On top of this, the country is rich in natural gas, and its coffee and cocoa are considered among the finest anywhere. But the money was concentrated in the hands of a small group, who preferred to deposit it in banks in Switzerland or the United States instead of investing it in their country. Chavez is thus an extreme case, in which social inequality erupted and became visible to the whole world.

Chavez’s reality show

Chavez, TV star (photo: Bernardo Londoy)

TV star (photo: Bernardo Londoy)

Venezuela is a strange democracy. Every Sunday morning, at 11 “approximately” (that is about as accurate as it gets here), Chavez speaks to his nation on his television program, “Alo, Presidente.” On television, not in parliament. The program continuess long as Chavez has something to say, and, in the best Castro style, might go on for four, five or six hours. Chavez is the center of the talk show, to which he invites friends, guests and politicians, and talks with them about current events. A senior journalist says that this is the best show in town, though it’s not clear whether one should laugh or cry. Another journalist says that on Sunday mornings the whole country is in a state of tension – after all, Chavez is liable to wake up and decide that from today on, only tomatoes will be grown, and no more onions.

In one recent program, Chavez presented his plan to change the national flag. Until now the flag consisted of three horizontal stripes in blue, yellow and red, with seven stars in the center. Now the president has decided to add another star. In a long talk, Chavez sat at a table in an open studio, holding a history book showing Venezuela’s various flags since the beginning of the 19th century. “Here you can see the flag decided on by Simon Bolivar in 1805,” Chavez says, his face serious as he points to the relevant illustration in the book. “And here is the flag that was decided on in 1806.” And so on and so forth, until 2006. But Chavez has decided on more than a star. Until now the state emblem showed a galloping horse. But the horse was galloping rightward and its head faced leftward. Now it has been decided that the entire horse will gallop leftward. “Because it’s simply not logical any other way,” the president explains.

In the past eight years, since he took office, cabinet ministers have been replaced 60 times. In any case, none of them are important. The parliament is controlled almost absolutely by Chavez’s party (the Fifth Republic Movement), after the opposition boycotted the December 2005 elections. The separation between the state and the party is not sufficiently clear. For example, roadside signs announcing the repair of the freeway to the airport carry the party’s slogan: “Now Venezuela is everyone’s.”

But this is exactly what Marina likes: that now, at last, Venezuela is hers. She would not exchange that sense of belonging and ownership for all the money in the world. The separation of powers doesn’t interest her all that much, and in fact never helped her. If she is to be believed, Chavez will rule here as long as he lives. “Just let Bush come here! Just let him come!” she says about rumors of a possible American invasion of Venezuela. “We will fight him! As far as I am concerned, it is homeland or death. Do you hear? Homeland or death!”

For her, Chavez is far more than a political leader. He is friend, brother, father, redeemer. On the antenna of her car is a small red beret of a toy soldier, like that worn by the “citizen-commander.” Talking about him makes her perspire, her lips become covered with saliva and her eyes grow red. “Yes, how we went into the streets when he was jailed [in the coup attempt] in 2002! Of course I went into the street. Was I going to let that gang of criminals kick out our Chavez?”

The average Venezuelan

Caracas seen from Mount Avila (photo: Yiyo)

Caracas seen from Mount Avila (photo: Yiyo)

“If you want to understand the Chavez phenomenon,” Marcano says, “you have to understand the Venezuelans’ need for a strongman. Their love for a figure like this. People view him as a liberator, messiah and father. There is no strong democratic tradition in Venezuela – all told, only 40 years of about 200 since independence – and the army has always ruled in politics. Venezuela has no need of a strong army. The country is not threatened by anyone and never was. Nevertheless, army officers were very dominant here, and people like that. Chavez uses very assertive language, he likes confrontation, and that speaks to a great many people. Besides, he is sympathetic, likes to talk a lot and is able to forge relations of equality with everyone he meets. When he hugs a child on the street, it is authentic. He does not fake it. He does not resemble the politicians who are always straining to make an effort, but who are obviously faking it. He is simply like the average Venezuelan in the street.”

“Chavez is one of 24 million Venezuelans,” says Aram Aharonian, director of Telesur, a new continent-wide cable news network, “and that is his strength. He is not a physician and he does not have a doctorate in law. He speaks to the people, not to me, not to the intelligentsia. Is that demagoguery? I don’t think so. One can say that he is a theater actor, only without a script.

For the first time, someone is explaining what is going on to the ordinary people, in their words. For the first time, people are arguing and understanding what is being said to them. Chavez has moved the politics that used to be conducted in backrooms to his television program. People feel that they are not objects of politics, but subjects. And these people are waking up. The people who restored Chavez to power in 2002 did not read Marx and Lenin. They had a political feeling in their bones, which they did not have before.

“In the past hundred years, all the money that entered Venezuela went to Switzerland. Now it is returning to Venezuela and is being invested in people. In the past hundred years the governments in Venezuela stole from the people and wasted as much money as 20 Marshall Plans. We know what one Marshall Plan did in Europe after the Second World War. One can only speculate what could have been done here with 20 such plans.”

Raul Zibechi, the foreign editor of Brecha, a magazine about Latin America published in Uruguay, believes that the Chavez government is simultaneously strong and weak. “Strong, because it has large popular support; weak, because there are no institutions in the country and everything rests on a direct link between Chavez and the masses. That is a dangerous situation. Venezuela does not have a strong bureaucracy – terrible as such a thing can be, but which channels part of the political strength in the country.

“The conflict with the United States,” he continues, “is being conducted badly by both sides, and at least from Chavez’s side the aggression is more for domestic needs than external needs.” Zibechi refers to the epithet “Hitler,” with which Chavez and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld branded each other, and to a wealth of other derogatory terms, such as “murderer” and “drunkard,” with which Chavez labeled U.S. President George Bush. “That is his way of gaining control over his masses. The population in Venezuela is very committed to Chavez, but it is difficult to control, and Chavez is trying to control them. The relations between Chavez and the masses are delicate but strong. The problem in Venezuela is that everything is built on Chavez. If Chavez were to die tomorrow – no matter from what – the whole process he began and his whole revolution could come to an end.”

Chavez and the Jewish question

Chavez with Ahmadinejad

Chavez with Ahmadinejad

A speech delivered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in January of this year stirred a furor in the international media and the Jewish world. “A few small groups,” he said, “the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who expelled Simon Bolivar from here and crucified him in Colombia − a small group has seized control of all the gold in the world, the money, the minerals, the water, the good lands, the oil and the riches, and has concentrated it all in the hands of a few.”

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center reported Chavez’s remarks and asked him to retract them. A letter to the newspaper “El Nacional,” signed by a number of intellectuals, noted that Chavez had reiterated two classic anti-Semitic allegations: that the Jews murdered Jesus and that the Jews controlled the world’s economy. “These dangerous trends should be condemned and fought before it is too late,” they wrote.

In an interview with Haaretz, Fred Pressner, the president of the Federation of Jewish Organizations in Venezuela, explained that “the Wiesenthal Center took a few sentences from the speech, without consulting with the local Jewish community, and caused a public storm. After many consultations we held in the community and with Jewish groups throughout the world, we reached the conclusion that the president’s remarks included comments which in the past were used for anti-Semitic purposes, but in the present case were not used in this way.

“Officials in Venezuela monitored the developments and arranged a meeting with President Chavez, which was cordial and polite. Chavez stated that he has no intention of harming the Jewish community and said he was sorry about the interpretation that was placed on his remarks. In addition, he expressed hope for a warming of relations with Israel. Later, at the end of January, he delivered a speech in the parliament and spoke in favor of the Jewish community. Moreover, he sent wishes for a speedy recovery to the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, who was already hospitalized then.”

There are about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in Venezuela. According to Pressner, there are occasional anti-Semitic remarks in the state and private media, as well as by officials. “Chavez should not have said that,” he says, “and in general, the authorities could do more in connection with the struggle against anti-Semitism. In our talk with Chavez we expressed our dissatisfaction with a number of matters, including the improving relations with Iran, which is explicitly calling for Israel’s destruction.”

In the past few months, as tensions between Iran and the international community have escalated, Chavez has expressed support for Iran’s right to “a nuclear project for peaceful purposes” and has invited senior Iranian figures to Caracas. The director of the Telesur cable television network, Aram Aharonian, explains that Venezuela views the matter as a battle between the United States and Iran. “Washington thinks that we, too, constitute a danger to world peace,” he says.

But the dispute is with the entire international community, not only with the United States.

“We are very remote from that. I do not see Iran as a true partner of Venezuela. I do not see the relations with Tehran as truly strong ties. We are busy feeding people. That and nothing else is the true problem of Latin America.”