[Marxism] Mother Jones interview with Richard Gott on Hugo Chávez
walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Oct 5 05:42:11 MDT 2005
Richard Gott's previous book on Chavez, IN THE SHADOW OF THE LIBERATOR,
was the first extended English-language treatment of the president of
Venezuela. In this interview, Gott takes on a range of matters, among
them Chavez' uniqueness as having come out of a military background in
the specific Venezuelan context. While an unabashed partisan of Chavez
and the Bolivarian project, Gott says the jury is out on the ultiimate
success of the process unfolding there. Many writers approach today's
Venezuelan scene with pre-conceived notions of what Chavez should or
shouldn't do. Gott's approach is more open-minded, noting the highly
pragmatic way Chavez approaches his complex reality. A revolution is
clearly in process in Venezuela, as the frustrated journalists from
the dominant corporate media continue to report, though they often
place "revolution" in quotes as if to sneer at what they cannnot
actually imagine is really happening. This is particularly true in
light of the ways Chavez deals openly with both the black and the
indiginous but poverty-stricken majority whose are entering the
political stage through this process. This is an indispensible
interview by one of the very best-informed students of Venezuela.
This new book will be every bit the page-turner as his previous one
on Chavez, published five years after IN THE SHADOW OF THE LIBERATOR.
This books is published initially in a paperback edition.
Walter Lippmann, CubaNews
Hugo Chavez and His Bolivarian Revolution
A veteran Latin America correspondent on the
past, present, and possible future of Venezuela's president.
October 04 , 2005
What to make of Hugo Chavez? By the lights of the Bush
administration, the President of Venezuela is an anti-American rabble
rouser, a devoted friend to the loathed Fidel Castro, a rogue state
unto himself, given to playing politics with Venezuela's oil
industry, which supplies about 15 percent of the U.S.'s crude. To his
increasingly frustrated political opponents in Venezuela, Chavez, a
former army colonel, is a leftist demagogue who stirred up a wave of
class and racial resentments and rode it to the presidency, and who,
in office, has dealt himself new powers at every chance, on his way
to becoming an out-and-out caudillo. And to a certain school of
international opinion, exemplified by The Economist magazine, Chavez
is an wacky utopian who sooner or later will run the Venezuelan
economy into the ground.
True, Chavez is, for a world leader, refreshingly free with his
opinions of the Bush administration. (And often, as at the United
Nations last month, entertainingly so.) He makes a show of railing
against US "imperialism," cheerfully baits and ridicules George W.
Bush, and matter-of-factly denounces the U.S. as a "terrorist state."
Most days, it seems, he surfaces somewhere in the media alleging dark
White House plots against his life. (Pace Pat Robertson, this seems
farfetched.) And he's quite convinced that the Bush administration
backed, or at least countenanced, a coup attempt against him in 2002
(which seems quite plausible). Also true, his governing style is
frankly populist, and he routinely excoriates Venezuela's elite
class, which dominates the political opposition and which, until the
rise of Chavez, dominated the country's politics. Certain of his
reform lawsin particular one regulating the media and another
reshuffling the judiciaryhave drawn protests from international
rights groups. And yes, there's the matter of la lista, the list of
signatures submitted in 2004 to demand a referendum on Chavez's
recall, which, so signatories claim, now functions as a black list,
deployed by the Chavez government to deny them jobs and services.
Then again, there's no gainsaying the fact that Chavez first won
office, in 1998, in a fair election with 56 percent of the vote, or
that since then he has prevailed in several electoral testsnot to
mention a general strike and a coup attemptgrowing steadily in
popularity each time. Nor is there any denying that he has brought
into the democratic process, for the first time, large numbers of
Venezuela's poor, most of whom live in the ranchos, or shanty towns,
that ring the cities. (As for his alleged class baiting, in a country
where the poor account for about 80 percent of the population and
where income inequality is extreme and glaring, democratic politics
cant help but involve issues of classand race: Venezuela's poor are
disproportionately black and indigenous.) Through a string of
"missions" the Chavez government has brought healthcare and education
to many of the ranchos and rural areas, which before now have
seen little of either. The missions are financed by proceeds from
Venezuela's oil industry, control of which Chavez seized after the
2002 (another sore point for opponents), and which, against
expectation, is humming along quite nicely. (Also worth noting: for
all that he fulminates against "neo-liberalist" free trade, and for
all that he has expanded the role of the state in Venezuela's
economy, Chavez's economic policy is fairly eclectic: he's pushed
hard to have Venezuela admitted to Mercosur, the South American free
trade bloc, and he's an energetic courtier of foreign investment.)
That Chavez is genuinely popular in Venezuela, and increasingly
throughout Latin America, is cause for neither surprise nor alarm,
according to Richard Gott, whose book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian
Revolution (Verso), recently updated and reissued, is the first
account in English to place Chavez in historical and intellectual
perspective. In Gotts sympathetic account, Chavez is magnetic
personality of the Clintonian type, a genuinely original figure in
Latin America, a radical left-wing nationalist, to be sure, but a
pragmatic improviser, and certainly no dogmatic socialist. Chavezs
program for Venezuela remains somewhat vague, even to the man
himself, but his concern for the countrys poor and marginalized is,
in Gott's view, sincere, and his vocation is essentially democratic.
Gott, who has been reporting on Latin America for four decades, is a
former correspondent and features editor for the London Guardian.
Hes the author of Guerrilla Movements in Latin America and Cuba: A
New History, among other books. He talked to Mother Jones recently by
phone from his home in London.
Mother Jones: Does Chavez really think the U.S. is out to have him
Richard Gott: You have to understand the fear that sweeps Latin
America whenever a progressive government comes to power. Chavez has
to take the of assassination very seriously. He has now expressed his
great solidarity with the Cuban revolution and gone so far as to say
that if the United States were to invade Cuba then Venezuela would be
at Cuba's side. Even so, to my mind, the idea that the United States
is planning to do assassinate him seems highly improbable. But I
think for Chavez it's a very real possibility.
MJ: Still, there's clearly no love lost between Chavez and the United
States government. Why does Chavez delight in provoking the
RG: Well, I think he gets out of it a lot of popularity at home.
People in the United States tend not to appreciate how extremely
disliked they are in much of the world and particularly in Latin
America, for old-fashioned historical reasons. The United States has
intervened all over Latin America for more than 100 years. They're
still in Cuba at the base in Guantanamo, since 1898. So there's this
tremendous legacy of hostility that's absolutely open to any
progressive regime to exploit.
MJ: And Pat Robertson's recent commentsthat the US should go ahead
and take him outpresumably played into that hostility.
RG: Yes, it's obviously very convenient when the United States lives
up to its stereotype as a Big Brother that's prone to intervene at
any given moment. But when Chavez started six or seven years ago he
didn't have this fearsome anti-American rhetoric that he has today.
He unleashes it today because he has good reason to believe the
Americans knew about the coup in 2002 and didn't do anything to warn
him, or prevent it. So he gets a lot of mileage out of pushing a
strongly anti-American line, and specifically an anti-Bush,
anti-neoconservative line. But gets on well with Jimmy Carter and
with Clintonyou know, with less extreme figures.
MJ: A big irritant for the United States, of course, is Chavez's
closeness to Fidel Castro. What should we make of that relationship?
RG: One tends to forget in the United States or in Europe how popular
and significant Castro is for Latin America. He remains this
extraordinary bulwark against the United States, and he's regarded as
the great Latin American figure of the 20th century. And Chavez
belongs to a strand in Venezuelan life, and Latin American life,
essentially of nationalism, and socialism, and support for the Cuban
revolution, and he's never made any secret of that. But of course he
has no plans to emulate the particular Soviet form of the Cuban
economy, or the particular form of Cuba's political arrangements,
which owe a lot to the fact that it's under an embargo and in a sort
of state of war. But he does appreciate Castro's advice; they talk on
the phone every night. They're very, very close.
MJ: And the Cuban-exile lobby doesn't take well to that ...
RG: No. Anyone who is friendly to Cuba becomes an enemy of the
Miami-Cuban mafia, and that's what's wagging the American policy
towards Latin America. Chavez, who has teamed up with Castro on many
many things, is implicitly just another enemy. But when you look at
ithas Chavez expropriated American companies? No. Has he affected
American business interests? No, he hasn't. There's still McDonald's
in Caracas, and you can still be an American businessman in
MJ: But it's not just the Miami Cubans who dislike Chavez. The
English-language media is pretty hostile towards him.
RG: Yes, that's true. For example, the correspondents for the
Economist and the Financial Times in Caracas during the Chavez
erait's been the same guys throughout--are essentially disillusioned
leftists of yesteryear who've moved over to the right. They've
accepted the arguments of the opposition and have been endlessly
critical of Chavez since the beginning, but always adopting the
latest opposition line. And the opposition, which is essentially the
Venezuelan elite, is now saying Chavez is moving to the left and he's
going to show his true socialist colors. Okay, it's true that Chavez,
for the first time this year, has used the word "socialism"he talks
about a "21st Century Socialism"but he's given absolutely no
indication that he wants to emulate Soviet socialism, Cuban
socialism, or indeed the sort of state capitalism that existed in
Europe for much of the late 20th century.
MJ: Do you have a sensefor that matter, does he have a senseof what
he means by "21st century socialism"?
RG: No, I don't think he does. He is keen on buzzwords like
"participation," he talks a lot about "participatory democracy," but
he hasn't really fleshed out these ideas. He likes the idea that
workers' representatives should be on the boards of companies, which
is quite an old-fashioned and interesting idea. But he's not
particularly interested in trade unions themselves becoming a
significant force. He's a very unusual leftist in the sense that he's
not much interested in trade unions or political parties.
MJ: Early on in the book you call him a "genuinely original figure"
in Latin America. In what sense is he that?
RG: He certainly comes from an unusual background. It's unusual to
have a progressive military figure, although there have been half a
dozen or so figures in the 20th century[Omar] Torrijos, in Panama,
for examplewho emerged from the military and established progressive
military regimes. What I find interesting about him is his
open-mindedness and his willingness to experiment. He arrived on the
scene without any dogmatic ideas. One of his principal heroes is
Simon Rodriguez, this extraordinary 19th century figure who was Simon
Bolivar's tutor. He had this wonderful slogan that Latin America had
to be "original." He had a debate with Bolivar, who was a child of
the European Enlightenment, influenced by the French Revolution, and
who wanted to import a lot of those ideas into Latin America. Simon
Rodriguez said, No, we can't import them wholesale into Latin
America; we have to think of original ways of dealing with the
problems of our continent on our own. I think Chavez has taken that
to heart. He's always casting around for ideas. He's one of the most
open-minded Latin American leaders I've ever come across. Whenever
you see him he says, "What's new? What's happening? What books should
I be reading?"
MJ: And yet he very deliberately styles himself as an heir to Simon
Bolivar, the great 19th century hero of Latin American independence.
In what sense are Chavez and his project for Venezuela "Bolivarian"?
RG: I think he still recognizes the significance of the ideas of
Bolivar. He's more interested in culture than in economics. All
leftist revolutions in the past have been based on an economic
restructuring of society. Chavez isn't so fascinated by that, but he
is fascinated by the need for Latin America to reestablish its
cultural identity outside of American cultural imperialismeverybody
watching American TV and American movies. He saying No, we should be
thinking about Latin America and thinking about our own culture. He's
set up a television channel called Vive, which is devoted to bringing
aspects of Venezuelan culture to the screen. He has also promoted the
television station Telesur, the idea being to have a Latin American
perspective on the news, and he's made a deal with Iran whereby
Venezuelans are learning from the Iranians how to make cartoon films,
in order to escape from the American idea that everything has to be
MJ: Chavez remains popular in Venezuela. How is he viewed in Latin
America more broadly?
RG: Yes, I think it's changed significantly in the years he's been in
power. To begin with they didn't really know what to make of him, and
it took them quite a long time to figure out that he was a very
serious and intelligent politician. I suppose, too, that after a
while his capacity to survive in itself becomes impressive, and the
fact that he has not only survived but continues to be high in the
opinion polls, winning election after election, gives him added
credibility in the rest of Latin America.
MJ: As you say, his resiliency has been extraordinary. How has he
managed to survivethrive, even?
RG: Well, two things are absolutely crucial. One is that he has the
support of the great mass of the people, who are poor, and also black
and Indian. Theres a really interesting racist element to politics
in Venezuela, and in the rest of Latin America. So Chavez has this
huge popularity among the poor, and hes seen to be delivering. And
even where hes not delivering, they believe that he will. The other
thing of course is that he has the absolutely solid backing of the
armed forces. The coup in 2002 allowed him to fire 60 generals and to
get rid of the entire upper reaches of the armed forces. So the
people running the army today are absolutely unconditional supporters
of Chavez. Not only that, he's extremely popular with the troops,
because they come from the poor and forgotten parts of the
population, and Chavez always makes huge efforts to make sure he
talks not just to the generals but also to the troops.
MJ: Of course Chavez is a former soldier himself. To what extent does
that explain who he is and where he comes from?
RG: I think it's very significant indeed. The Venezuelan military is
unlike other militaries. They've often had relationships with the
left. They are simply not the sort of generals with dark glasses that
one associates with Chile and Argentina, say, and they tend to come
not necessarily from the higher social strata, they often come from
the provinces. It's been quite a democratic army. They also in the
1970s and 1980s started studying at the universities and colleges,
and became somewhat integrated into civilian life.
You have to bear in mind, too, that entire political structure of
Venezuela has collapsed, the old political parties have disappeared,
evaporated, and Chavez hasn't really created much of a new organized
political movement of his own. The bureaucracy is in the hands of the
middle-class opposition, and it's very difficult to get any sort of
reform through the existing government machine, so Chavez does rely
on the military to get things done, as his own political party.
MJ: The military aside, lacking an organized political movement he
seems to hold on in part through sheer force of personality. Is there
a danger that when he withdraws from the scene, voluntarily or not,
his reforms and achievements will go with him?
RG: I think that's a very legitimate question. Things are better from
that point of view than they were four or five years ago. I think if
Chavez had disappeared even two or three years ago, that would have
been the end of that. I think now that things are becoming more
organized, less chaotic, the regime looks stable, and people are
beginning to join in on the grounds that this is going to last. For a
long time members of the opposition said, we're going to get rid of
Chavez tomorrow, and so they waited till tomorrow came. But when that
didn't happen, I think a lot of people who weren't particularly keen
on Chavez are now beginning to realize that this is the government
they're going to have to deal with for the next ten years. And I
think that if Chavez disappeared tomorrow, there are enough good,
competent people, and that the system is now stable enough, and that
it will continue. I think what is significant is that there has been
a revolution, a collapse of the ancien regime, so it's impossible to
imagine going back to the system that existed before.
MJ: Not least because Chavez has brought into politics a large
portion of the populationthe poorthat wasn't involved before.
RG: Yes, I think that may turn out to be Chavez's most significant
achievement. In a way that's what made the old, elitist opposition
unhappy -- this democratization of the country, bringing in this
underclass, even a lumpen class, into the body politic. A lot of the
programs, the projects he's developednot just the health programs
but the education programs, toothey're really aimed at the 16-25 age
group, the young people who weren't getting into college or into
training. He's making sure that a huge amount of money will be spent
on this one generation to get them into education, into work, and
essentially into politics, because they're the people who will
ultimately decide the nature of the system.
MJ: Now, he's able to make this huge investment because Venezuela is
flush with oil money. What happens if and when that flow of money
RG: Well, I don't think the price of oil is going to come down in the
foreseeable future, and anyway he is only trying to do this as a
crash program for one generation. After that, Venezuelans will have
to decide which direction to go in. But he will have a much larger
group of motivated people than existed in the 20th century.
MJ: You talk about Chavez's "new politics of oil." What's been his
RG: First of all came the discovery, in the 1980s, that simply
nationalizing the oil industry didn't result in huge flows of money
for development, for the simple reason that the people who took over
the industry ran it the same way it had been run in the days of Shell
and Exxon, when the money disappeared into speculation or into the
hands of the directors. Chavez has completely altered the way the oil
company is run, pointing out that the money ought to be invested in
MJ: It's never healthy for an economy to rely to heavily on one
industry, as Venezuela does on oil. Is the Chavez government working
to diversify the economy?
RG: Absolutely. A lot depends on this new generation of people
emerging, and then the possibility of investing in other activities.
Chavez has the old, sort of 19th century belief in trying to develop
the infrastructure all over the country, to try to reverse the
movement of people from the countryside to the cities. And I think
his scheme is to try to revive local economies and make countryside
more of a pole of development so that people don't endlessly drift
into the cities, which is of course the bane of the whole of Latin
America, not just Venezuela.
MJ: So, Chavez came into office promising radical reforma Bolivarian
revolution. Has he delivered?
RG: I think the jury is still out on the entire project. It's
extremely open-ended as to where it's going to go, and I'm sure it's
going to change and develop in time. Chavez is a very pragmatic
leader who's moving forward gradually on a number of fronts but
doesn't have any kind of blueprint for the eventual organization of
society in Venezuela. For example, on two or three cases they've
taken over factories that have collapsed and the workers have
demanded that they should be taken over. I don't think that's the
model, but it's happening. So I think there'll be a sort of pluralism
of different projects, some cooperative, some state-owned, some
privately owned. That's more or less what's happening at the moment
and I expect that to continue. I think that because they depend so
much on oil and it takes time to develop alternative economic
activities it remains to be seen how all that will work.
MJ: Have the poor and historically disenfranchised seen real gains
RG: They've seen a large amount in terms of health and education in
the shanty towns. That is very visible, and it's extraordinary. And
the ones who haven't got it yet know about it and they're waiting for
it and agitating for it to arrive. I went to a shanty town outside
Caracas next two or three months ago and nothing had happened, and
they were extremely anxious for it to happen. They were sending
protest demonstrations to the local mayor asking, when are the Cuban
doctors going to come, and when is the education scheme going to
reach our village. They are very well aware that improvements are in
the offing and that they're going to come, though they obviously
haven't got everywhere yet. I think the employment program is still
in its infancy; getting people into jobsthat still has a long way to
MJ: The standard US line on Chavez is that his vocation is
essentially autocratic. What do you make of that?
RG: I think it's entirely invented. It's true that he is a military
figure who expects his orders to be obeyed. The two items that are
endlessly picked on by the opposition are [his reforms of] the media
and the judiciary. The judiciary was an unbelievable mess under the
ancien regime. It has been reformed, they have managed to get control
of it, and I think you'd expect any government to do that if it's
building on the ruins of the past. You're not going to get a
situation where the corrupt judges of the past have an influence over
the system. You can call it raison d'etat if you like, but it seems
to me to be a perfectly understandable measure for the government to
take. I seem to remember that Franklin D. Roosevelt did something
similar in the 1930s.
The complaint about the media law is a completely ridiculous red
herring. All they've done is introduce some legislation that's
probably less repressive than what we have in Western Europe. It's
really the modern way of introducing a certain amount of regulation
into television in a world that had hitherto been totally unbridled.
And indeed anyone knows who's been there the media are having a field
day and are about 80 percent anti-Chavez. So there isn't much to
complain about there.
MJ: If Chavez's revolution succeeds, what do you think Venezuela look
like ten years from now?
RG: I think Venezuela will be a model for the rest of Latin Americaa
society that's come to terms with its black and indigenous
poverty-stricken populations, and where those populations participate
fully in the democratic process. Because it's a new generation it's a
little open-ended as to what will happen, but Chavez recognizes that.
He says "Let the people decide," and I think he means it.
Julian Brookes is the editor of MotherJones.com.
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