[Marxism] "Why Hugo Chavez is headed for stunning victory": Richard Gott

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Aug 8 00:08:53 MDT 2004

The Guardian (UK) - August 7, 2004

Loathed by the rich

Why Hugo Chavez is heading for a stunning victory

by Richard Gott in Caracas

To the dismay of opposition groups in Venezuela, and to the surprise of
international observers gathering in Caracas, President Hugo Chavez is
to secure a stunning victory on August 15, in a referendum designed to
to his overthrow.

First elected in 1998 as a barely known colonel, armed with little more
revolutionary rhetoric and a moderate social-democratic programme,
has become the leader of the emerging opposition in Latin America to the
neo-liberal hegemony of the United States. Closely allied to Fidel
he rivals the Cuban leader in his fierce denunciations of George Bush, a
strategy that goes down well with the great majority of the population
Latin America, where only the elites welcome the economic and political
recipes devised in Washington.

While Chavez has retained his popularity after nearly six years as
president, support for overtly pro-US leaders in Latin America, such as
Vicente Fox in Mexico and Alejandro Toledo in Peru, has dwindled to
Even the fence-sitting President Lula in Brazil is struggling in the
The news that Chavez will win this month's referendum will be bleakly
received in Washington.

Chavez came to power after the traditional political system in Venezuela
self-destructed during the 1990s. But the remnants of the ancien rigime,
notably those entrenched in the media, have kept up a steady fight
him, in a country where racist antipathies inherited from the colonial
are never far from the surface. Chavez, with his black and Indian
and an accent that betrays his provincial origins, goes down well in the
shanty towns, but is loathed by those in the rich white suburbs who fear
has mobilised the impoverished majority against them.

The expected Chavez victory will be the opposition's third defeat in as
years. The first two were dramatically counter-productive for his
since they only served to entrench him in power. An attempted coup
d'itat in
April 2002, with fascist overtones reminiscent of the Pinochet era in
was defeated by an alliance of loyal officers and civilian groups who
mobilised spontaneously and successfully to demand the return of their

The unexpected restoration of Chavez not only alerted the world to an
unusual leftwing, not to say revolutionary, experiment taking place in
Venezuela, but it also led the country's poor majority to understand
they had a government and a president worth defending. Chavez was able
dismiss senior officers opposed to his project of involving the armed
in programmes to help the poor, and removed the threat of a further

The second attempt at his overthrow - the prolonged work stoppage in
December 2002 which extended to a lockout at the state oil company,
Petrsleos de Venezuela, nationalised since 1975 - also played into the
of the president. When the walkout (with its echoes of the CIA-backed
Chilean lorry owners' strike against Salvador Allende's government in
early 1970s) failed, Chavez was able to sack the most pampered sections
of a
privileged workforce. The company's huge surplus oil revenues were
redirected into imaginative new social programmes. Innumerable projects,
"missions", were established throughout the country, recalling the
atmosphere of the early years of the Cuban revolution. They combat
illiteracy, provide further education for school dropouts, promote
employment, supply cheap food, and extend a free medical service in the
areas of the cities and the countryside, with the help of 10,000 Cuban
doctors. Redundant oil company buildings have been commandeered to serve
the headquarters of a new university for the poor, and oil money has
diverted to set up Vive, an innovative cultural television channel that
already breaking the traditional US mould of the Latin American media.

The opposition dismiss the new projects as "populist", a term
used with pejorative intent by social scientists in Latin America. Yet
with the tragedy of extreme poverty and neglect in a country with oil
revenues to rival those of Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to see why a
democratically elected government should not embark on crash programmes
help the most disadvantaged.

Their impact is about to be tested at the polls on August 15. Vote "Yes"
eject Chavez from the presidency. Vote "No" to keep him there until the
presidential election in 2006. The opposition, divided politically and
no charismatic figure to rival Chavez to front their campaign, continue
behave as though their victory is certain. They discuss plans for a
post-Chavez government, and watch closely the ever-dubious and endlessly
conflicting opinion polls, placing their evaporating hopes on the "don't
knows". They still imagine fondly that they can achieve a victory
to that of the anti-Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990.

Yet their third attempt to derail the government is clearly doomed. The
Chavez campaign to secure a "No" vote has struck the country like a
whirlwind, playing to all his strengths as a military strategist and a
political organiser. A voter registration drive, reminiscent of the
to put black people on the election roll in the United States in the
has produced hundreds of thousands of new voters. So too has a campaign
give citizenship to thousands of long-term immigrants. Most will favour
Chavez, and Chavez supporters are already patrolling the shanty towns
the most remote areas of the country to get the vote out on August 15.
unexpected bonus for Chavez has been the dramatic and perhaps
increase in the world oil price. As he explained to me a few days ago,
he is
now able to direct the extra revenues to the poor, both at home and
for Venezuela supplies oil at a discount price to the countries of
America and the Caribbean, including Cuba. Chavez celebrated his 50th
birthday last month, and he has talked of soldiering on as president for
years in order to see through the reforms he envisages. That is not such
improbable proposition.

He has also been helped by the changing political climate in Latin
Other presidents have been climbing over themselves to be photographed
him. He has patched up relations with Colombia and Chile, hitherto cool,
last month reinforced his friendly relations with Brazil and Argentina
signing an association agreement with the Mercosur trading union that
lead. Once perceived by his neighbours as a bit of an oddball, he now
appears more like a Latin American statesman. Up and down the continent
has become the man to watch.

Faced with a Chavez victory, the opposition may yet turn in desperation
violence. His assassination, hinted at recently by former president
Andris Pirez, or the deployment of paramilitary forces of the kind
in recent years in Colombia, is always a possibility. Yet the more
sectors of the opposition will set themselves, with luck, to the
task of organising a proper electoral force to challenge Chivez in 2006.
When I asked an uncommitted bookseller whether he would vote to sack the
president in mid-term, he replied: "No, they should let him get on with

[Richard Gott is the author of In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo
and the Transformation of Venezuela, published by Verso; his latest
Cuba: A New History, will be published next month by Yale University


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