Participatory Democracy in Venezuela

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Wed Dec 18 12:50:41 MST 2002

Chaos and Constitution

With his country teetering on the brink of disaster, Venezuela's Hugo
Chávez clings to power -- thanks primarily to the passionate support
of the nation's poor.

By Barry C. Lynn
January/February 2003 Issue

The populist former paratrooper has mobilized Venezuela's poor to
participate in their own government

You can buy a plastic-bound copy of the Venezuelan Constitution for
60 cents, a leather-clad copy for $3, a coffee-table edition for $5.
Not that you really need a copy of your own, since someone standing
near you on the subway in Caracas will have one in his pocket. Or you
can always listen to one of the ongoing debates at a downtown park.
"Look at this article," someone will shout, and a half dozen people
will flip through the constitution's 35,000 words and 350 articles to
find the pertinent passage. "Yes," someone else will cry out. "But
this one here is more to the point."

Leila Escobar, a lab technician in her early 30s, carries a
pocket-size copy of the new constitution, bound in blue plastic. I
meet her late one morning in Nueva Grenada, a grimy, run-down
neighborhood in the Venezuelan capital, and the mid-October day is
unseasonably hot. As a passing cloud offers relief, Escobar pauses to
wipe the sweat from her face with a red handkerchief. She has walked
seven miles already, near the head of a march by hundreds of
thousands who have come out in support of President Hugo Chávez. It
has been six months since Chávez was ousted briefly in a coup, and
now his opponents -- business leaders, a handful of military
officers, almost all of the nation's media -- are once again trying
to orchestrate his removal. So Escobar and other chavistas have taken
to the streets, vowing to protect the president -- with their bodies,
if necessary.

The reason for their support has everything to do with the little
blue book Escobar carries. In one of his first acts as president,
Chávez held a nationwide referendum on the constitution that
effectively redrew the political boundaries of Venezuela from the
ground up. Over the past four years, through a series of new laws and
programs, he has mobilized the poor to participate in what had always
been a top-down, two-party political system dominated by the
country's upper and middle classes. "The president has brought us
hope, and he has brought us democracy," says Escobar. "They will not
take him from us."

...[D]espite the widespread economic misery, what upsets Escobar most
is that Venezuela's rich want Chávez out of power, now. Chávez, she
says, is the only leader who has ever cared for Venezuela's poor.
"The rich have always had so much, and we, nothing," she explains as
thousands of marchers -- mostly of mestizo or African descent --
surge past, blowing whistles, singing, waving flags. "Now Chávez
wants the rich still to have, but us too, a little."

Since the demonstration in October, tensions in Venezuela have
escalated to the brink of civil war. A nationwide general strike,
called by Chàvez opponents, has stretched into its third week. Almost
every day, it seems, some sort of protest disrupts life in Caracas --
mass demonstrations, street riots, clashes between government
supporters and Chàvez critics. In recent weeks, Chàvez has ordered
the military to take over oil tankers whose crews refused to deliver
their cargo, and the Bush administration has weighed in, calling for
early elections. For the United States, the stakes in this struggle
are high. Venezuela is America's fourth-largest supplier of oil,
providing nearly 15 percent of all U.S. imports. With the Bush
administration authorized to wage a war in Iraq that could
destabilize oil supplies in the Middle East, Venezuela's importance
to the U.S. economy can scarcely be overstated. "We are married to
Venezuela, for better or worse," says Stephen Johnson, a Latin
America analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Yet Venezuela's government remains in the hands of a man who has
become one of the most vocal -- and effective -- opponents of U.S.
interests abroad. Chávez, with his red berets and revolutionary
rhetoric, does far more than talk and dress the role of a second
Castro. In 1999, he banned U.S. aircraft from flying over Venezuela
to patrol for drugs in neighboring Colombia. A year later, he
undercut efforts to isolate Iraq by becoming the first head of state
since the Gulf War to visit Saddam Hussein, whom he called "a
brother." He took the lead in rejuvenating OPEC, convincing member
nations to slash production and thereby quadruple the price of oil.
And he has stalled U.S. efforts to enact the Free Trade Area of the
Americas, slowing negotiations that would extend the provisions of
NAFTA throughout the hemisphere.

Given Chávez's record, it was scarcely a surprise that the Bush
administration was quick to recognize what it demurely called the
"change of government" in Caracas last April, when Chávez was
temporarily removed from office. After a protest march outside the
Miraflores presidential palace erupted in a shoot-out that left 19
dead, the military abruptly placed Chávez under arrest. It soon
became clear that high-ranking officials in the Bush administration
had been in close contact with those plotting the coup -- including
Pedro Carmona, the Venezuelan businessman who briefly replaced
Chávez. But international pressure, coupled with massive
demonstrations by the poor, returned Chávez to office within two

If Chávez is ousted, however, it will not be because he is a brutal
dictator....Opposition political parties, as well as the press,
operate freely in Venezuela, and the federal police -- once among the
most feared forces in South America -- have not hindered even those
advocating outright rebellion. And for the first time in Venezuelan
history, ordinary citizens are being encouraged to create and elect
local councils, to work with local officials to improve their
neighborhoods, to get directly involved in their government. Acting
together, these are the people who have become the single most
powerful group in Venezuela. These are the people who, in many ways,
have made themselves the real sovereigns of Venezuela's oil.

A few days after the chavista rally, I climb a mountainside to Hoyo
de la Puerta, one of the shantytowns that ring Caracas. Here, on
either side of a highway, raw brick houses with green corrugated
roofs cut into high coastal rainforests that are home to foxes and
sloths, snakes and hummingbirds. Some residents work in the city,
some grow avocados and oranges, many are unemployed.

Rosa de Peña moved her family of eight here in 1972, when the
government bulldozed her oceanside house to clear space for an
airport runway. Chávez has provided many neighborhoods with
government funds to build sewers, open clinics, and teach residents
to read, but the residents of Hoyo de la Puerta are long accustomed
to making do on their own. As de Peña, now 75, makes her way down an
eroded pathway in her three-inch heels, brown flowered dress, and
tinkling steel necklace, she eagerly points out the many small works
of her neighbors. Here, a family poured concrete on a steep stretch
of path. Here, people strung electric lines through the trees to
their homes. Here, a man built a house entirely of stone gathered in
the valley below. But at a tiny creek, where seven-year-old Raquel
Josefina Pérez bathes, de Peña's pride fails her. After years of
promises by local officials, the neighborhood still has no fresh
water, and its 500 children must still make do with sharing 120 desks
in a tiny, windowless school. That's why Raquel is here at ten
o'clock in the morning on a school day. "She does not fit," de Peña

...[W]hen people gather in neighborhoods like Hoyo de la Puerta, the
talk seldom centers on the price of food or the lack of health care.
Instead, what excites them is the new constitution, drafted by a
popularly elected assembly in 1999 and approved by an overwhelming
vote in December of that year. A somewhat haphazard amalgam, the
document protects minority rights, permits people to claim title to
their farms and homes, and expands political participation at the
grassroots level. De Peña, for example, is particularly excited by a
new law that gives citizens the right to take part in the kind of
urban planning that drove her from her home 30 years ago. "Before,
the government could come and do whatever they wanted to us," she
says, pulling a newsprint copy of the law from her purse and waving
it about. "But this paper gives the community a voice. This law
forces the authorities to listen."

The issue of land ownership, especially, inspires poor residents to
praise Chávez. As is true of about half the people of Caracas, most
here do not hold legal title to the houses in which they live, or to
the lots underneath. Some say they bought their land years ago.
Others admit they simply took the land and built on it. Now, a new
law permits them to "regularize" their ownership by registering their

Indelgard Vargas, an unemployed engineer and father of two small
children, says land ownership is partly a matter of self-respect. "It
is better to own a little plot," he says, "than to trespass on a
great expanse." But it also has practical consequences. For the first
time, the poor will be able to sell their lots, protect them in
court, or mortgage them with a bank. Chávez, the revolutionary,
promises to make the poor into property owners -- and, in the
process, he has already given them a sense of entitlement as
citizens. "How can you demand service from the mayor when you don't
pay property taxes?" says Vargas. "And how can you pay any taxes if
you don't own any property?"

Hugo Chávez burst into Venezuelan politics in 1992 very much
uninvited, as the mastermind of a coup attempt that saw tanks roll
right to the gates of Miraflores. Chávez, at the time a 38-year-old
colonel, coordinated a nationwide military uprising against
then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had implemented an austerity
program that seemed to fall hardest on the poor. The government
quickly put down the rebellion, which left 70 dead, and Chávez
surrendered within hours, asking only that he be granted a chance to
speak to his supporters over national television. The time for
revolution would come, he promised them: "New possibilities will
arise again, and the country will be able to move forward to a better
future." On screen for less than a minute, his rough-hewn manner and
straight talk captured the public's imagination, and he emerged a

Two years in prison only buffed Chávez's image, as did his efforts to
embrace civilian-style politics and to stuff his stout frame into a
business suit. His 56 percent showing in the 1998 presidential
election set a record, but it was his 80 percent popularity rating
that stunned Venezuela's political establishment. There are many
reasons why most of the country's elite have come to hate
Chávez....Yet much of the hatred for Chávez arises from visceral
class antipathy. The son of small-town schoolteachers, Chávez is a
powerfully built mestizo with a wide, almost meaty face and thick
hands. He's the sort of man that upper-class Venezuelans expect to
see hauling sacks of concrete at a construction site or driving a
bus, not running the country. Many refuse even to sit in the same
room as Chávez, let alone debate the details of macroeconomic policy
or how to divvy up scarce state funds.

For anyone who knew Venezuela during the years of the oil boom, as I
did as a foreign correspondent during the late 1980s, the current
level of political polarization is shocking. For three decades after
the last dictator fell in 1958, the country was often held up as
Latin America's model democracy. There were two powerful political
parties, both with a strong base of support among the upper and
middle classes, both able to rally large masses of the poor via
well-honed patronage systems. It was, everyone liked to say, just
like the United States.

This system served the country's elite well, rewarding them with
highly lucrative monopolies in everything from beer bottling to food
canning to domestic airlines. It also did well by the millions of
immigrants who came from Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the 1930s and
1950s. These people managed most of Venezuela's industries and
service companies, and filled most professional positions. And when
the big oil dollars started flowing in the early 1970s, it was a
system that organized one of the longest-running fiestas of the 20th
century. Awash in a seeming sea of money, Venezuelan elites built
themselves wide highways, a sparkling subway, a glittering array of
office towers and luxury apartments, a beautiful national theater.
They imported great chefs, danced in glamorous clubs, vacationed in
Paris, annexed large chunks of Miami. Jeep Wagoneers, bottles of
Johnny Walker Black, kilos of French cheese -- all were heavily
subsidized with public money.

In February 1989, the era of black gold came to a sudden, violent
end. Oil prices had been falling for years, and everyone knew the
party had to slow. But when the Pérez government tried to pass much
of the bill on to the country's poor through higher bus fares and
bread prices, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. At first the
mobs burned buses, then they looted and burned stores, then they
looted the apartments and houses of anyone who seemed to have more.
Scores died in battles among neighbors. And when the army came, many
hundreds more were shot down. Yet thousands of people refused to go
home, even after soldiers opened fire with automatic rifles. In some
neighborhoods, mobs armed only with sticks and rocks repeatedly
charged ranks of terrified soldiers trucked in from the countryside.
No one knows exactly how many people died, but many estimates put the
total at well over 1,000. "The Caracazo," as the riot was called, was
the single bloodiest uprising in Latin America in the last half

By taking to the streets, however, Venezuela's poor became a force
that had to be reckoned with. What Chávez has done, through the new
constitution, is to start a process of formalizing and solidifying
their political power, channeling their anger through political
institutions rather than the streets. "Venezuela is a time bomb that
can explode at any moment," Chávez said when the constitution was
approved. "It is our task, through the power of the vote, to defuse
it now." Chávez threatens Venezuela's elite because he wants to turn
the mob of February 1989 into what he likes to call el soberano --
"the sovereign citizen." Which is reason enough, in a country where
the poor and working class form a solid majority of the voting
population, for the elite to want Chávez out....

Democratic Action and COPEI, the two political parties that long
dominated Venezuelan politics, have all but collapsed in recent
years, and opponents of Chávez now have no real leaders or political
platform. What they have is money, and they are voting with their
bank accounts and passports. Since Chávez took office, tens of
thousands of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans have fled the
country, many to the United States. Last year they were on pace to
remove an estimated $8 billion from the economy -- a staggering 8
percent of the annual gross domestic product.

They also control the media. All of Venezuela's private television
stations and national newspapers are owned by the opposition, and all
are employed to deliver an unadulterated flow of anti-Chávez
propaganda in the form of news, popular music, even soap operas. The
distortions can be dramatic. Today's anti-Chávez march is covered by
all four TV channels from five in the morning until midnight. The
pro-Chávez march three days later -- though twice as large -- is
ignored entirely by three of the channels, and covered only
sporadically by the fourth. (The American media also played up the
anti-Chávez march, inflating its turnout to a million.) The marchers
and the media are demanding that a popular referendum on the
president be held immediately. They also call on European courts to
indict him for crimes against humanity, as Spain did with Pinochet.

It is this charge of repression that most infuriates Chávez's
supporters. Not a single leader of the April coup, they note, is in
jail, even though some of them continue to openly advocate his
overthrow. Not so long ago, the same could not be said for many of
the poor who spoke out against Venezuela's old regime. Even at the
height of the good times, the country's democracy was a preserve of
the upper and middle classes, and it was protected at gunpoint.
Anyone who tried to oppose the government from outside the two-party
system ran a risk of being arrested, beaten, or killed by the
National Guard or the federal police known as the DISIP. The DISIP
sported black leather jackets and tall black boots, and the attire
was more than a fashion statement.

Juan Contreras was a college student in the 1980s. He was also a
member of a left-wing party considered "subversive" by the
government. The DISIP and the National Guard routinely broke into his
apartment -- 46 times in all, he says. Often they arrested him;
sometimes they beat him. These days, Contreras places his faith in
community organizing rather than party politics. A 39-year-old social
worker, he travels around Venezuela to help poor farmers claim title
to their land. He also leads a left-oriented group in the 23 de Enero
housing project, a collection of immense and decrepit apartment
blocks that rise on hills just west of the presidential palace. The
group polices the projects at night, raises money to make needed
repairs, and helps the elderly get medicine. "It has been years since
any political party did anything for us," says Contreras. "We have to
fight for our community by ourselves, every day."

Contreras doesn't expect much in the way of material help from the
government -- but he is grateful to Chávez for calling off the
police. The DISIP no longer visit his house, nor do they break up
public meetings at the housing project as they did in the past. The
president, Contreras says, has created a political environment in
which the poor can assemble without fear of reprisals. On this day, a
group of neighbors at 23 de Enero has organized a dance to raise
money to fix an elevator in the 14-story Apartment Block 28. "For the
first time," Contreras says, "we can breathe."...

At the local level, the new constitution encourages poor communities
to create district councils to decide neighborhood affairs. Venezuela
has no tradition of electing councils that are open to all parties --
or to people of no party -- so building them means starting at the
very bottom. In the neighborhood of Petare, which includes some of
the poorest and most violent barrios in Caracas, Alejandrina Reyes is
going door to door with a small team of city workers and student
volunteers. The goal is to speak with every adult in each district of
roughly 3,000 people, to explain how residents can elect a council of
12 representatives. "It takes two months or more of almost full-time
attention to get one community ready to vote," Reyes says. "And we've
only been working with the easy communities, the ones where people
have already set up associations and cooperatives." Then she smiles.
"It's slow, but the word is really getting out."

One of the first to heed the call was Gloria Baroso. Only 40, Baroso
has six children and four grandchildren, and has been on her own
since her husband left home seven years ago. She runs a cooperative
bakery in the El Carmen section of Petare, and also helps out as a
nurse when people in the community take sick. Now she holds a seat on
the new district council.

Baroso knows that before Chávez, it would have been unthinkable for a
single mother who bakes bread for a living to hold elected office in
Venezuela. In the street in front of the cooperative, she wipes her
hands on her apron and sighs. Even before she joined the council, she
had too much to do. "But it's worth it," she says. Already, she has
seen a profound change. "The Venezuelan people are not the same
people they were even a few years ago," she says. "We know our
rights. And no matter what the rich do to Chávez, this is something
they can never erase."  What do you think?

Barry C. Lynn lived and worked in Venezuela in the late 1980s during
the last years of the oil boom as a staff reporter for Agence


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