Ellner on the Latest Venezuelan Elections

Jay Moore research at SPAMneravt.com
Tue Aug 15 21:09:25 MDT 2000

By Steve Ellner
[This is the uncut version of an article published in the current "In These
Times"; they only published half.]

On the evening of his reelection on July 30, a euphoric President Hugo
Chávez quoted the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as saying "Simón Bolívar
awakes every hundred years." In his speech, which was delivered to tens of
thousands of elated followers, Chávez added: "You, the Venezuelan people,
have awoken as a result of this process of revolutionary change."

The elections on July 30 put Chávez's hold over the Venezuelan people, and
the poorer classes in particular, to a test. The economy was beset by a
recession during Chávez's first year-and-a-half presidential period, as
unemployment reached 18 percent. In spite of these difficulties, Chávez
triumphed with 59 percent of the vote, 3 percentage points higher than in
the previous presidential contests. In addition, his "Patriotic Pole"
coalition of parties won 99 seats in the 165-person Congress.

The "pacific revolution" that Chávez advocates is aimed at those lacking
steady work known as the "marginal class," which after 2 decades of an
economic downturn now constitutes 70 percent of the working population.
Chávez's new constitution, which was ratified in a national referendum in
December of last year, opens the social security system to the members of
this marginal class.

More recently, Chávez issued a decree prohibiting public schools from
charging tuition, a common practice in recent years effecting the same
marginal class. The charge is usually disguised as a "contribution," but
parents invariably discover that it is a mandatory one. Chávez has
encouraged people to occupy schools which violate the order and has
threatened to jail their principals.

Chávez is not only a populist but a fervid nationalist, even though he
carefully eschews anti-U.S. rhetoric. He has resisted persistent State
Department pressure to grant the U.S. permission to fly missions over
Venezuelan territory in hot pursuit of drug traffickers. His announcement
upon taking office that he would not compete with Saudi Arabia in the U.S.
market and would comply with OPEC production quotas sent prices rising in
1999. In recognition of this feat, Venezuela was awarded the organization's
presidency for the first time in its history.

Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel spelled out for me the general thrust
of Venezuela's foreign policy: "We have contributed modestly toward creating
a multi-polar world. Thus, for instance, Venezuela votes independently in
U.N. and O.A.S. meetings. We follow no particular line."

Chávez's critics at home and abroad attribute Venezuela's economic woes to
the president's populism and nationalism. Former CIA member Brian Latell
wrote in the Washington Post Op-Ed Page two days before the elections that
Chávez's "populist" policies of overspending had produced "massive capital
flight, escalating foreign investor fears, and profound economic
uncertainties." Nevertheless, there is an alternative explanation for these
problems. A string of elections, including three over the new constitution
last year, has contributed to the uncertainty among investors.

Chávez was not always a champion of pacific revolution. As a junior
military officer in February 1992, he led an unsuccessful coup against
President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was subsequently impeached on grounds of
corruption. Chávez had first begun laying the groundwork for the coup ten
years earlier -- thus demonstrating his perseverance. His final decision to
take up arms was made as a result of his indignation at the gunning down of
an estimated thousand poor people during a week of mass disturbances in
February 1989 -- putting in evidence his social compassion.

For the coup leaders, the real enemy was Venezuela's traditional parties,
which had ruled the nation for 40 years but were notorious for corruption,
patronage and inefficiency. Ironically, the second in command of the 1992
coup was Francisco Arias Cárdenas, Chavez's principal rival in the July 30

In February of this year, Arias surprised the nation by breaking with Chávez
in order to run against him in the special general elections which were just
held. At first, some political pundits speculated that Arias's candidacy was
a ruse designed to focus electoral attention on the two ex-comrades in arms
who allegedly supported similar goals, at the expense of the nation's
traditional parties. In fact, Arias unwittingly cast himself in the position
of defending a return to the past.

During the campaign, Arias failed to present new proposals to build on the
changes that Chávez had initiated. Furthermore, Arias's campaign was too
hard-hitting to convince people that his candidacy represented minor
differences within the family. In one TV ad which was widely criticized for
being overly run and in bad taste, Chávez was represented as a crowing hen,
while Arias called him a chicken due to his decision to surrender on the day
of the 1992 coup.

The electoral results on July 30 demonstrate the extent to which Arias is a
prisoner of the traditional parties he formerly attacked. Arias's candidates
for governor failed to win in any of the nation's 23 states, whereas those
identified with the traditional parties triumphed in seven. The typical
Venezuelan opposed to Chávez voted for Arias as president and for local
candidates of the traditional parties. Indeed, the traditional parties
tacitly supported Arias while refraining from extending him official
endorsement, which would have been embarrassing for him and
counterproductive. For those who championed Chávez's "pacific revolution,"
Arias represented the thermidorean reaction.

The most important issue separating the two candidates was the most elusive,
namely economic policy. On a trip to Washington, Arias told a White House
representative that "only a policy of 'earn-earn' and clear rules for
foreign capital can guarantee international comprehension" and attract the
investments that the country badly needs. Arias claimed that Chávez's glib
and indiscrete remarks about the rights of the poor encouraged land
invasions, which in turn scared off private investments. Arias's advisors on
economic policy were the same economists who justified the laissez faire or
free market policies known as "neoliberalism" implemented by the nation's
last two elected presidents, one of whom Arias had attempted to overthrow in

Chávez has lashed out at neoliberalism, although he stops short of the
traditional left model in which the state runs the economy. Nowhere in the
world has an alternative blueprint been fully developed, but Chávez's
policies may be a step in that direction.

Thus, for instance, Chávez's new constitution scraps his predecessor's
legislation which turned over the social security system lock stock and
barrel to private interests. Indeed, Chávez warned the nation against "those
who want to get their hands on the goodies, because for some time extremely
strong capitalist sectors here in Venezuela and abroad have been eyeing our
social security system." He added that private investments would be welcome
for the system of pension funds, but the state would have the final word in
decision making in order to avoid capital flight and guarantee coverage for
the very poor.

Upon assuming power, Chávez set aside some of his radical plans. For
instance, during his first presidential campaign in 1997 and 1998, he
forcefully called for a "negotiated moratorium" of the foreign debt. Since
Chávez became president, however, Venezuela has dutifully paid its
creditors. As he stated a few days before the recent elections: "We are
paying what we owe because we want to continue to interact with foreign

The rhetoric Chávez employs against political foes is often, but not always,
aggressive. He has clashed head-on with the hierarchy of the church, the
nation's main business organization and the communications media. As he has
done in the past, however, Chávez called for a truce with these institutions
on the night of July 30. Quoting Simón Bolívar, he stated "hatred has no
place in my heart."

Chávez's critics at home and abroad are sometimes no less belligerent.
Aristóbulo Istúriz, a leading Venezuelan politician, told an audience at
Georgetown University in March, "Chávez's rivals who have a limited public
in the nation, go to the U.S. on speaking engagements, malign the Venezuelan
government, and are received as foreign dignitaries."

Some U.S. newspapers describe Chávez as a demagogue or a to-be dictator, and
indeed he often gets compared to Peru's Alberto Fujimori. Nevertheless,
Venezuela's presidential votes were almost entirely processed and counted
electronically, unlike the manual method in Peru which made the nation's
recent elections easy to manipulate.

Chávez exaggerates when he calls his movement a "revolution," and indeed the
new constitution guarantees the sanctity of private property. Nevertheless,
some of his policies have far-reaching implications for South America. At
the beginning of the new century, no other nation in the continent pursues
an independent foreign policy or has put forward viable alternatives to the
neoliberal formulas that Washington has so forcibly pushed.
Venezuela's recent electoral campaign failed to stimulate a serious
discussion of these issues, but the line was clearly drawn between Chávez's
support for a new vision and Arias's criticisms of the government, which
pointed in the opposite direction. Indeed, the Venezuelan voter was
presented with a clearer choice between "continuity" and "change" than in
Argentina, Chile and Mexico, where new parties have assumed the presidency
in recent months.

An array of powerful forces -- including the Church hierarchy, organized
business groups, the middle class, traditional political parties and the
mass media -- for the most part opposed Chávez's new constitution and are
now pitted against the government. In the face of such an awesome challenge,
Chávez may be tempted to follow the example of Peru's Fujimori and opt for a
non-democratic course. What is equally troublesome is that Chávez's movement
is largely a one-man show, and the coalition that supports him, including
his own party, lacks well defined, long-term goals.

Thus slippage can go in one of two directions. Chávez, given his military
background and the relatively large number of officers he has appointed,
could militarize the government and turn his back on democratic rules. A
second danger is that he limit himself to an aggressive discourse in favor
of social change, while doing little to alleviate the lot of the poor in
concrete ways.

Perhaps the most encouraging side effect of the "peaceful revolution" has
been an acquired sense of empowerment among common people. As Chávez said,
people have "woken up." Maura Jiménez, a slum dweller in the eastern town of
Barcelona, displayed this greater awareness when she criticized the large
number of candidates who ran as "independents" even though they really
represented the discredited traditional parties. She remarked: "the time
when people could be so easily deceived has past." Indeed, comments like
this are common now a day in Venezuela. It explains why people generally
understood that the traditional parties were behind the candidacy of Arias
Cárdenas. This sense of popular awareness also represents a major challenge
for President Chávez as he enters his second period in office.

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

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