Steve Ellner on Hugo Chavez

Jay Moore research at
Fri Dec 10 19:38:55 MST 1999

Another new article on my Web site -- also published in print in the
December issue of "Z Magazine".


   Venezuela´s president Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez frequently makes public
appearances in military fatigues and tells his audience that he is ¨dressed
for battle.¨ He adds that his words are ammunition and his targets are those
adversaries who act at the behest of the discredited political parties of
the establishment. Chávez has scored a string of electoral victories that
have left the formerly dominant parties disgraced and demoralized. First, he
triumphed in the presidential elections in December 1998 with 56 percent of
the vote, as opposed to the meager 9 percent of the two main establishment
parties -- the social democratic Democratic Action (AD) and the social
Christian Copei. Subsequently, in a referendum in April, 90 percent of the
votes were cast in favor of Chávez's proposal for a Constituent Assembly.
For Chávez, the Assembly's raison d'etre is nothing less than the thorough
transformation of the nation's political system.

     Then, on July 25, Chávez trounced his opponents in the election for the
Constituent Assembly. All but a handful of the candidates elected to the
131-seat Assembly belong to Chávez's coalition. The remaining few were
endorsed by AD and Copei, whose candidates -- including several of the
parties' national leadership - deceptively called themselves "independents."

     Following the inauguration of the Assembly, influential actors abroad
have questioned its assumption of emergency powers. At issue is the
Constituent Assembly's claim that it is hierarchically superior to all other
public institutions and its decision to oversee Congress, the judicial
system and state governments. In an editorial on August 21, the New York
Times labeled the Constituent Assembly's actions "Jacobin" and criticized it
for "concentrating power in the presidency." The U.S. State Department,
which had maintained a discrete silence regarding Chávez since his election,
advised Venezuela to maintain "the separation of powers between the diverse
branches of government." Nevertheless, a glimpse at Chávez's past and his
government's program dispels the notion that he is set on assuming
dictatorial power and that his efforts to fortify the executive branch
overrides social concerns. Most important, none of the members of the
opposition has been locked behind bars or persecuted in any way and no
restrictions have been placed on the media, in spite of its vocal criticism
of the government.

     Chávez originally raised the banner of the Constituent Assembly as a
vehicle for radical political change at the time of the abortive military
coup he led in 1992. He again embraced it last year during the presidential
campaign. Chávez lambastes the nation's Constitution of 1961 for privileging
political parties. Their representatives in Congress have powers ranging
from the nomination of judges to approval of military promotions. Chávez
reserves his sharpest attacks for AD and Copei, which for decades have been
at the center of what he pejoratively calls "party-democracy" marked by
clientelism, inefficiency and corruption.
     In accordance with their goal of limiting the reach of political
parties and promoting participatory democracy, the Chavistas elected to the
Constituent Assembly have moved to turn the judicial system upside down and
are expected to enact the popular election of judges. Coalition partner
Patria Para Todos (PPT) issued a statement in September calling on the
Assembly to create an "autonomous and decentralized" court system, adding
that "the jails should be utilized only as a last resort and should cease
being a depot of human beings to convert itself into centers of work and

     Many Chavista delegates favor eliminating state legislatures and
reducing the authority of governors in order to enhance that of a municipal
government accessible to ordinary citizens.

      By actively taking part in the campaign for the Constituent Assembly,
Chávez flaunted Venezuelan law and tradition which forbids the President
from taking sides in elections so as to avoid utilization of the immense
resources at his disposal. Chávez, however, must capitalize on his
popularity if he is to carry through on his promise to overhaul the nation's
political system. The parties that back him, including his own Fifth
Republic Party, fall short of the task.

     Not only do they lack prestigious leaders, but they are divided among
themselves. Chávez´s movement began as a one-man show, and although some of
its leaders have achieved a degree of national popularity, it is still
completely dependent on its standard bearer.

     Chávez is a product of popular outrage and effervescence. Fifty years
of relatively stable oil prices had provided the nation with a stable
democracy, which contrasted with the military-run governments in the rest of
the continent in the 1960s and 1970s. The sharp downturn in prices in the
1980s interrupted Venezuela's prosperity. Then on February 27, 1989 mass
riots of slum dwellers broke out throughout the nation, leaving an estimated
2000 dead. Venezuela would never be the same.

     Santiago Martínez, who heads a major community organization in Caracas,
told me: "After February 27, we tried to reconstruct what I call the "social
fabric" by easing social tensions, but to no avail. Poor people consider the
affluent communities enemy grounds. Any businessman who is successful is
assumed to be corrupt, and that goes for politicians as well. The distrust
is mutual. The middle class fears that the poor are about to invade their
communities." This class cleavage manifests itself in attitudes toward
Chávez. Middle class members are increasingly alienated by the radical
language of the President, who on several occasions has questioned the
sanctity of private property. They view Chávez as indiscreet, long-winded
and uncouth. In contrast, the nation's have-nots are as solidly behind him
as at the time of his election and are especially taken by the President's
frequent references to the plight of the poor.

     Chávez´s charisma is not hard to grasp. He represents different things
to different people. He frequently speaks to the nation informally in TV
appearances which go on for hours, in the style of FDR´s fireside chats. He
also has a weekly call-up radio program named ¨Hello President.¨ The
President sometimes shows up unexpectedly and virtually unaccompanied at
hospitals and elsewhere in order to get a close-up view of the nation´s
pressing problems. Chávez comes off as an ordinary Venezuelan whose
childhood dream was to play baseball in the majors. Indeed, on an Asian trip
in Octuber, Chávez pitched prior to a game to Venezuelan slugger Roberto
Petagine, who leads the Japanese major leagues in home runs. He performed a
similar feat at Shea Stadium in New York earlier this year. He is a Southpaw
who occasionally throws a wicked curve, and even argues with the umpire on
calls he considers unfair.

     Chávez also proudly talks of his Indian extraction in a country where
many are conscious of their African blood but forget that they are also
mestizo. Chávez embraces a homegrown style of nationalism underpinned by
Venezuelan heroes. His discourse resembles Sandinismo which also developed a
national doctrine while breaking with imported models of Marxism-Leninism.
Chávez berates historians for practically writing off the nation´s history
between the death of Simón Bolívar in 1830 and the modern era, dismissing a
whole century of political leaders as ¨caudillos," or strong-men. In a book
of interviews with Chávez entitled The Commander Speaks, he states:
¨Caudillos may have been necessary for the incorporation of our people in
historical struggles. I believe we have been sold an imported bourgeois
democratic model - that of the elimination of our leaders.¨

     Among these ¨caudillo¨ leaders was Chávez´s great-grandfather, known as
¨Maisanta,¨ A life-long rebel, Maisanta participated in an uprising that
left an ex-president dead, and in another which involved the execution of a
notoriously ruthless governor. He was finally subdued in 1922 and spent his
last seven years in prison.

     Like Maisanta, Chávez is a rebel at heart. As a junior officer, he
dedicated ten years laying the groundwork for an unsuccessful coup he staged
on February 4, 1992 against neoliberal president Carlos Andrés Pérez (who
was impeached a year later on grounds of corruption). Unlike his
great-grandfather, Chávez was released from jail after serving only two
years, and went on to form a makeshift party consisting of ex-military
officers and leftists including ¨ultras.¨ He has now rewarded some of these
same followers positions in his cabinet and the party.

     One of the candidates unexpectedly defeated in the elections for the
Constituent Assembly was Carlos Andrés Pérez, Chávez´s arch-rival. Pérez
claims that the choice available to Venezuelans is between ¨liberty and
dictatorship,¨ while making clear who represents what. Pérez predicts that
Chávez will convert the Assembly into a vehicle for personal rule.

     If what Pérez and other opposition leaders say about Chávez´s
authoritarian tendencies is true, then his presidency fits the general
pattern of excessively powerful executives characteristic of Latin American
democracies in the 1990s. Peru´s Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress and the
Supreme Court, and, as in the case of Argentina´s Carlos Menem, ruled for
several years largely by decree. Latin American presidents have often run
roughshod over congress in order to impose neoliberal policies that they
themselves had adamantly opposed when first running for office.

     Chávez has also placed in doubt the legitimacy of the Congress, the
parties of the establishment, and even the bureaucratically run labor
movement, leading some to question his commitment to democracy. In addition,
he has set aside his radical proposals on economic policy, such as a
negotiated moratorium on the foreign debt and revision of contracts with
foreign oil companies, and he no longer lashes out at the International
Monetary Fund.

     Nevertheless, Chávez is hardly moving in the direction of Menem and
Fujimori, nor does he resemble their radical populist predecessors such as
Juan Domingo Perón or Lázaro Cárdenas. In the first place, Chávez was a
junior officer who conspired against the government for ten years and then
led an armed uprising. In his informal style, his physical traits, and his
lower middle class background he is more "one of the people" than were his
populist counterparts. Furthermore, his key slogan is popular participation,
a far cry from the paternalist relationships promoted by populism. Indeed,
his followers have a sense of optimism and efficacy -- that they are the
major players in a process that promises to transform the nation more than
any event since Independence. Finally, given the conservative setting in
Latin America in the 1990s, Chávez´s movement is distinguished by its
radical and confrontational thrust.

     Chávez´s critique of Venezuela´s post-1958 democracy goes beyond
repudiation of discredited politicians of the ilk of Carlos Andrés Pérez. He
proposes a completely new political model for Venezuela of direct citizen
participation. In the book The A, B, C of the Constituent Assembly, Chávez
follower Fabian Chacón quotes Rousseau as saying ¨the system of
representation contradicts the principle of popular sovereignty." Chacón put
it this way to me: ¨The idea that people can intervene in politics at any
given moment, as against having to wait four or five years at election time,
is the difference between night and day.¨ He went on to note that for the
Chavistas the quintessence of ¨participatory democracy¨ is the proposal of a
referendum allowing Venezuelans to vote politicians out of office in periods
between elections.

     One facet of the deepening of the nation's democracy is the
democratization of the nation's main labor federation, the Venezuelan
Workers Confederation (CTV). Chavistas pressured the CTV into allowing the
rank and file to elect directly the president and other members of its
executive committee. These elections will make the CTV practically unique
among major labor federations throughout the world. The CTV also gave in to
the insistence by Chavistas that the elections be supervised by an outside,
neutral body, thus minimizing possible fraud. Nevertheless, the CTV stopped
short of acceding to another demand of Chavista labor leaders, namely the
inclusion of unorganized workers -- including such self-employed ones as
street vendors -- in the list of voters. Diverse groups such as police,
members of the cultural community, ecological organizations and even
children participated in meetings to formulate proposals for the Constituent
Assembly and, in some cases, launched their own candidates. The First Lady,
Marisabel Rodríguez de Chávez, who has played an activist role on behalf of
children rights in general, and street children in particular, was elected
to the Constituent Assembly with the second largest vote. She proposes the
creation of the figure of ¨The Defender of the Rights of Children¨ who would
encourage children to come forward and denounce abuses. The tenacity of the
First Lady´s convictions and courage was demonstrated during the
presidential campaign when she publicly stated that her child, Rosainés
Chávez, was conceived out of wedlock.

     Chávez´s election has set off efforts to organize and mobilize other
sectors of the population including the unemployed, land squatters and even
prisoners. Venezuelan jails are among the most dilapidated and dangerous in
the world. President Chávez and several followers met with prisoners and
convinced them to turn over weapons. Sarith Suriega, a congresswoman I spoke
to belonging to Chávez´s Fifth Republic party, participated in the endeavor:
¨Prisoners handed over some of their weapons which they had concealed in the
walls, and in return we promised to look into their grievances, not only
regarding prison conditions but the injustices of their own sentences.¨

     Another Chavista, Rear Admiral Luis Cabrera, who ran for governor and
was one of the top rebel leaders in 1992, pointed out to me: ¨70 percent of
our prisoners are awaiting sentences. These people are a potentially
powerful force, and their tactics such as hunger strikes draw world-wide
attention. We (the Fifth Republic party) received a majority of votes in all
the nation´s penitentiaries in the December elections.¨

     From a political viewpoint, Chávez´s bold initiatives and his promises
not to use force against those who protest have paid off, at least in the
short run. A large part of the population is actively behind him and willing
to take to the streets should circumstances require. In the long run,
however, his militant rhetoric could backfire if expectations are not met.

     Chávez's bias in favor of non-privileged sectors gets translated into
certain policies which hardly sits well with the IMF and national business
groups. Although Chávez now accepts privatization, he adamantly opposes it
in the area of health and education, and has thus put a hold on last year's
law eliminating the publicly run social security program. His government has
also clamped down on private schools that fail to meet basic standards.
Spokesmen for this sector have warned that the draft of the new constitution
submitted to the constituent assembly in October points in the direction of
the elimination of private education.

     In July, he also unveiled a 900-million dollar public works program to
combat unemployment under the direction of military authorities.
Representatives of the international business community criticized it for
diverting money, derived from recent oil price increases, which should be
used to put government finances in order. At the same time, Venezuelan
business spokesmen attacked the plan for sidetracking the private sector.

     The Chávez movement's mobilization strategy designed to shore up the
Constituent Assembly also brings to the fore demands of a socio-economic
nature. In a march organized by the "Fifth Republic" and PPT parties on
September 2 in Caracas, the parties' worker contingents called for the
restoration of the system of severance payment, calculated on the basis of
the employees last salary, which the previous pro-neoliberal government had
scrapped. The constitutional draft submitted to the Constituent Assembly in
October restores the old system (although a last minute change of wording
leaves the article somewhat ambiguous).

     Another key element in Chávez´s political strategy is the armed forces,
which has been incorporated into the nation´s life in the form of programs
of civilian-military cooperation and appointment of officers to top
government positions. The President's proposal for granting military
personnel the right to vote, which leftists have been pushing for since the
1970s, was brought to the floor of the Constituent Assembly in October.
Chávez can count on the armed forces as an ally, particularly crucial should
political tensions reach a threshold conducive to military intervention.

     Chávez's independent and audacious foreign policy also represents a
radical break with previous administrations. At the same time, it thrusts
Venezuela into a leadership position among Latin American nations
increasingly concerned with new forms of U.S. intervention.

     This role of protagonist was demonstrated at the 29th General Assembly
of the Organization of American States (OAS) held in Guatemala in June. At
the meeting, Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel pointed to possible
corruption among narcotics officials in the United States, at the same time
that he called for elimination of Washington's annual "certification" of
Latin American nations according to their record in combating the drug
trade. Rangel, a three-time socialist candidate for President, posed the
question "how does the country which figures as the principle market for
narcotics get off certifying the efforts of other nations in this area?"

      At the OAS general assembly, Rangel led the resistance to a resolution
sponsored by U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering which would have
created mechanisms to impede the slippage of democratically elected
governments toward dictatorship. In an interview, Rangel told me, "The U.S.
motion was vague and rested on hypothetical situations. If it had prospered,
it would have served as a pretext for intervention."

     In the interview, Rangel pointed to the turnabout in the attitude of
the U.S. embassy in Caracas, which during the presidential campaign had
denied Chávez a visa due to his conspiratorial past. "The State Department
has shown great caution toward Chávez because of what I call the "Cuba
Syndrome": the fear that U.S. inflexibility will push Chávez to the extreme
left, as it did Castro." Rangel does not deny the possibility that Chávez's
independent foreign policy could put a damper on investments from abroad,
but notes, "With the end of the Cold War, foreign investors have paid less
attention to ideology and geopolitics. They consider Chávez's commitment to
revamp the notoriously corrupt and inefficient judicial system far more
significant than any abstract formulation."

     More recently, however, Washington's apparent easygoingness has been
transformed into a more critical posture. Undoubtedly, one reason for this
change in attitude is the realization that the political revolution Chavez
is leading inevitably spills over to the economic sphere, in the process
undermining U.S. economic interests.

     Of overriding importance is the key role Chavez has begun to play in
OPEC. In recent years, Venezuela was notorious for scabbing on OPEC by
increasing oil exports. The Chávez government's announcement early this year
that it would not attempt to recover the portion of the U.S. market
previously lost to Saudia Arabia signaled a new policy of complying with
Venezuela's production quotas. In March of next year, Chávez hopes to host
OPEC's second summit of heads of states (the first was held in 1975) in
which non-OPEC oil exporters will also participate. There Chávez is expected
to push for the proposal for OPEC to reassume the role abandoned two decades
ago of setting prices in the form of establishing a maximum-minimum range
between which prices will be allowed to oscilate.

      In less than one year in office, Chávez has diverged from the U.S. on
a wide range of issues. What he said in China on the last day of a visit in
October was more than just empty rhetoric: "We have begun to put into
practice an autonomous foreign policy independent of any center of power,
and in this we resemble China." Chávez went on to tell the Chinese that his
end vision was nothing less than a "multi-polar world."

     When Chávez exhorted fellow rebels to lay down their arms after intense
fighting on February 4, 1992, he declared, "Unfortunately, the objectives we
formulated have not been achieved for now.¨ The "for now" phrase has since
become legendary in Venezuela. It serves as a reminder that Chávez is, above
all, a strategist with a keen sense of timing. Indeed, Chávez makes this
point to his followers. At a rally announcing Caracas' 8 candidates for the
Constituent Assembly in June, Chávez told supporters that his movement has
"cards up our sleeves" and cited the proverb "battle that is announced,
doesn't kill soldiers."

     Until now the President has carefully limited his radical objectives to
the nation's political system. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Chávez
and many of his followers have an underlying socio-economic vision. Indeed,
many of his leading supporters have over an extended period of time called
for reexamination of the foreign debt and defended state control of
strategic sectors of the economy. If Chávez is successful in consolidating
power and drafting a constitution which transforms political institutions,
he may well switch over to a second track with the aim of overcoming
economic dependence. For now, Chávez is concentrating his fire on corrupt
and traditional-minded politicians, while defending national sovereignty in
the form of an independent foreign policy.

Steve Ellner is the author of scores of articles on Venezuelan politics and
history and is co-editor of The Latin American Left: From the Fall of
Allende to Perestroika (Westview). He has taught economic history at the
Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977.

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