[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
http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1278213,00.html

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
about
to secure a stunning victory on August 15, in a referendum designed to
lead
to his overthrow.

First elected in 1998 as a barely known colonel, armed with little more
than
revolutionary rhetoric and a moderate social-democratic programme,
Chavez
has become the leader of the emerging opposition in Latin America to the
neo-liberal hegemony of the United States. Closely allied to Fidel
Castro,
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
of
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
nothing.
Even the fence-sitting President Lula in Brazil is struggling in the
polls.
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
had
self-destructed during the 1990s. But the remnants of the ancien rigime,
notably those entrenched in the media, have kept up a steady fight
against
him, in a country where racist antipathies inherited from the colonial
era
are never far from the surface. Chavez, with his black and Indian
features
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
he
has mobilised the impoverished majority against them.

The expected Chavez victory will be the opposition's third defeat in as
many
years. The first two were dramatically counter-productive for his
opponents,
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
Chile,
was defeated by an alliance of loyal officers and civilian groups who
mobilised spontaneously and successfully to demand the return of their
president.

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
that
they had a government and a president worth defending. Chavez was able
to
dismiss senior officers opposed to his project of involving the armed
forces
in programmes to help the poor, and removed the threat of a further
coup.

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
hands
of the president. When the walkout (with its echoes of the CIA-backed
Chilean lorry owners' strike against Salvador Allende's government in
the
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,
or
"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
poor
areas of the cities and the countryside, with the help of 10,000 Cuban
doctors. Redundant oil company buildings have been commandeered to serve
as
the headquarters of a new university for the poor, and oil money has
been
diverted to set up Vive, an innovative cultural television channel that
is
already breaking the traditional US mould of the Latin American media.

The opposition dismiss the new projects as "populist", a term
customarily
used with pejorative intent by social scientists in Latin America. Yet
faced
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
to
help the most disadvantaged.

Their impact is about to be tested at the polls on August 15. Vote "Yes"
to
eject Chavez from the presidency. Vote "No" to keep him there until the
next
presidential election in 2006. The opposition, divided politically and
with
no charismatic figure to rival Chavez to front their campaign, continue
to
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
comparable
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
attempt
to put black people on the election roll in the United States in the
1960s,
has produced hundreds of thousands of new voters. So too has a campaign
to
give citizenship to thousands of long-term immigrants. Most will favour
Chavez, and Chavez supporters are already patrolling the shanty towns
and
the most remote areas of the country to get the vote out on August 15.
One
unexpected bonus for Chavez has been the dramatic and perhaps
semi-permanent
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
abroad,
for Venezuela supplies oil at a discount price to the countries of
Central
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
an
improbable proposition.

He has also been helped by the changing political climate in Latin
America.
Other presidents have been climbing over themselves to be photographed
with
him. He has patched up relations with Colombia and Chile, hitherto cool,
and
last month reinforced his friendly relations with Brazil and Argentina
by
signing an association agreement with the Mercosur trading union that
they
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
he
has become the man to watch.

Faced with a Chavez victory, the opposition may yet turn in desperation
to
violence. His assassination, hinted at recently by former president
Carlos
Andris Pirez, or the deployment of paramilitary forces of the kind
unleashed
in recent years in Colombia, is always a possibility. Yet the more
civilised
sectors of the opposition will set themselves, with luck, to the
difficult
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
the
job."


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

       





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