In late 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a vote on a constitutional referendum which would have allowed the President to run again in future elections. Hardly discouraged, he pressed forward. On Sunday, people will vote on a similar referendum and in the event that Chávez wins, he could stand for reelection in 2012.
That’s an outcome which the opposition seeks to avoid at all costs. What Chávez really wants, the opposition claims, is to become a fledgling tyrant and to institutionalize his own personal power. Originally elected in 1998, Chávez is now serving his third term in office. While pushing his referendum, the Venezuelan President has said that he needs more time in office in order to secure vital socialist reforms.
For Chávez, holding the referendum is a big gamble. If he should lose on Sunday, the opposition will be able to claim its second straight victory. Already, the right is feeling more emboldened following its decent showing in local elections last year. As a result, victory on Sunday might lead the opposition to call for a presidential recall in 2010.
Currently polls show Chávez with a slight lead, but if the President simply ekes out a victory this could reinvigorate the opposition which had been swamped by Chávez in previous elections. Perhaps, if the President had done more to groom and promote a political successor, the Chávez forces would be in a more politically advantageous situation right now. By tirelessly campaigning for his own right to reelection, Chávez has given ammunition to the opposition and, arguably, imperiled the future of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution which has done much to bring social and economic benefits to Venezuela’s neediest.
The dilemma over the constitutional referendum underscores a larger problem. At long last, Chávez forces are running up against the structural limitations which characterize populist regimes. A charismatic leader, Chávez has established a tight bond with millions of Venezuela’s poor. Indeed, one might argue that the fervor that many feel for Chávez verges on the religious. Given this high level of adulation, finding a political successor to Chávez is a challenging task.
Possible heirs might include Julian Isaías Rodríguez, a former vice-president and Attorney General; Diosdado Cabello, a former army Lieutenant Colonel, Vice President, Minister of Interior and Justice and Governor of the provincial state of Miranda; José Vicente Rangel, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, or Jorge Rodríguez, who worked as a director of the National Electoral Junta as well as the nation’s Vice President.
There are a number of other promising and intriguing figures associated with the Chávez regime which I profiled in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), including the young Andrés Izarra, who headed up Telesur, a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela, and Nora Castañeda, who was appointed by Chávez to head the Women’s Development Bank in Caracas. Izarra and Castañeda however don’t have much of a political base and are even greater long-shots than Isaías Rodríguez, Jorge Rodríguez, Cabello or Rangel.
The fact that Chávez forces have not come up with alternative leaders is not very surprising in light of recent history. Chávez-style populism, which in certain respects resembles earlier Latin American populist variants, is characterized by an enormous focus on the individual leader and his dominant power—similar to the paternalistic hacendado on the traditional hacienda. In the populist model there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on unquestioned decision making power and seemingly “god-like” qualities that permit leaders to interpret the needs of the people and to chart the future trajectory of the state in order to satisfy those needs.
Populists whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. They rail against ill-defined “oligarchies,” entrenched political parties, local elites, the church or media establishment. Indeed, populists may seek to set up their own rival media in order to create a sense of public accessibility. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. They may seek to build up an image of themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation, while meanwhile channeling nationalism against various and sundry political threats. Hardly content to work within conventional political channels, they conduct militant street rallies and mass mobilization of civil society to achieve their long-term objectives.
While populist regimes in Latin America haven’t been particularly revolutionary, some have achieved a significant degree of economic redistribution. They may even succeed in empowering disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups for a time. The problem however is that populism is difficult to sustain in the long-term. Ideologically inchoate, populist movements rely on their leaders to provide vital political glue. Populism is socially heterogeneous and may succeed in bringing together a multi-class coalition, but only temporarily.
In the absence of a charismatic leader, populist movements may fall apart or languish. Will popular forces be able to advance in Venezuela if their leader falters? If Chávez does not win on Sunday or achieves only a modest victory, this question will be sorely put to the test.
In late 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a vote on a constitutional referendum which would have allowed the President to run again in future elections. Hardly discouraged, he pressed forward. On Sunday, people will vote on a similar referendum and in the event that Chávez wins, he could stand for reelection in 2012.
It is testament to how much Latin America has changed politically over the past several years that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez not only criticizes U.S. military policy in the region but now actively seeks to form a new defense force designed to counteract the colossus of the north.
Recently, Chávez invited Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to join him on his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente! Turning to his friend and ally, Chávez remarked that Latin American countries which formed part of ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas) "should set up a joint defense strategy, and integrate our armed forces and intelligence services because the enemy is the same: the United States empire."
Chávez, who is known for his bravado and rhetorical flair, then added, "Whoever takes on one of us will have to take on everyone,because we will respond jointly."
ALBA is an initiative set up by Chávez to encourage greater solidarity and reciprocity amongst left leaning regimes throughout the region; its members include Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica. In recent years, ALBA has served as a mechanism to enhance barter
exchange between nations. For example, Venezuela has shipped oil to Cuba and in return receives thousands of Cuban health professionals who attened to the Venezuelan poor.
Originally set up to upstage the Free Trade Area of The Americas sponsored by the Bush White House, ALBA also seeks greater cultural integration amongst Latin American countries. Now, Chávez seems intent on expanding ALBA's scope to the military realm as well.
Chávez's comments come at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. American officials such as Admiral Michael Glen Mullen, Chief of the U.S. Southern Command, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, say Venezuela is a threat to the region. They claim that Venezuela is encouraging an arms race in South America and has become a drug transshipment point. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to arm the Colombian military and the civil conflict there has spilled over the Venezuelan border. Chávez has accused the Colombian "oligarchy" of collaborating with Washington in an effort to foment an armed conflict with Venezuela.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Chávez remarked that "The time will come when the Colombian people get red of that oligarchy. We won't provoke them unless they provoke us." Chávez claims that Colombia, acting on U.S. instructions, wants to create obstacles for the proposed
South American Union of Nations or Unasur.
In the midst of the Colombian imbroglio and escalating tensions, Chávez would like ALBA
nations to demonstrate greater solidarity in an effort to oppose Washington's military influence. The Venezuelan leader has called on the defense ministers of each ALBA member-nation to begin preparation for a joint Defense Council. While it's unlikely that such plans will come to fruition, the Bush administration's policy of seeking to isolate Chávez has produced the exact opposite effect.
During his meeting with Chávez, Ortega declared "If they touch Venezuela, it will light up the
region. No one is going to stand idly by, because to touch Venezuela is to touch all of Latin America." The Nicaraguan President added that the United States sought to threaten Venezuela via Colombia. In return for Ortega's diplomatic support, the grateful Chávez offered to provide technical assistance to maintain Nicaragua's Russian helicopters.
Ortega has commented that ALBA nations have just as much a right to form a joint military force as European countries and NATO. His pronouncements represent a shift from earlier, more pro-U.S. administrations in Nicaragua. In 2003, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños sent a team of doctors, nurses, and mine sweepers to the Middle Eastern nation to assist a Spanish brigade.
The Chávez-Morales Axis
Bolivia is the South American nation which shares the most ideological affinity with Chávez
at the current time and it's no surprise that Morales has sought greater military cooperation with Venezuela. Despite U.S. complaints about Chávez's allegedly expansionist aims in the region, Bolivia's chief of staff, General Freddy Bersatti, reportedly backs the idea of "merging" the Venezuelan and Bolivian armed forces. Chávez has provided helicopters to Bolivia and says he will send weapons to replace equipment. The Venezuelan President has reportedly pledged to provide up to $22 million to build 20 military bases in Bolivia.
In late 2006, Venezuela's ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, remarked that "if for some reason this pretty Bolivian revolution were threatened, and they asked us for our blood and our lives, we would be here." Morales faces a particularly active and vigorous political opposition from the right, and Chávez has remarked that he will not sit idly by if the "Bolivian oligarchy" tries to forcibly remove his ally.
It's not the first time that Chávez has proposed forming wider military alliances in the region to put a break on the United States. In 2006, Chávez invited Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Evo Morales to a military parade in Caracas where he proudly announced "We
must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the region with a common doctrine and organization." In another speech, Chávez added: "We must form the armed forces of Mercosur [a South American trade bloc] merging warfare capabilities of the continent."
During a trip to Bolivia, where he was accompanied by Venezuela's army chief, Raul Baduel, Chávez declared that there was a need for a Latin American alliance akin to NATO "with our own doctrine, not one that's handed down by the gringos."
During a two month trip through South America in 2007, I spoke with a number of military experts. Without exception, they all scoffed at Chávez's proposals to form a joint defense force. Chávez's proposals are problematic in a couple of respects. First of all, it would prove logistically challenging, not to mention costly, for Venezuela to maintain its troops if they were sent abroad.
The other obstacle for Chávez is political in nature: not all governments in the region share his particular socialist views or vision, nor do they necessarily view the United States as a mortal enemy which must be confronted.
In a region still beset with political and national rivalries, Chávez's bid for a unified military force faces an uphill battle. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how the Chilean armed forces -- which have an enormous amount of institutional pride and which have never lost a war-- would ever be willing to enter into a joint military force with Venezuela. Indeed, Chile has rebuffed Chávez's military proposals.
Meanwhile, the largest and most important country in the region, Brazil, is unlikely to become a member of a military force if it is constituted under Venezuelan leadership. In fact, Brazilian army commanders have declined Chávez's initiatives.
Even amongst sympathetic ALBA nations, it's doubtful that Chávez can succeed in creating
a united defense force. Despite growing military ties between Venezuela and Bolivia, there is pressure on Morales not to go too far. Conservative media in Bolivia such as the paper La
Razón have ridiculed Chávez's proposed ALBA military alliance. What's more the Venezuelan leader is reviled by the Bolivian right wing opposition. If Morales were to increase military collaboration with Venezuela it would give rise to calls that Chávez is interfering in Bolivia's internal affairs.
Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the political opposition has rejected Chávez's proposals as a "senseless adventure." Eduardo Montealegre of the Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense party remarked that the idea of an ALBA force was a "smokescreen" designed to obscure real problems facing ALBA nations such as misery, hunger and lack of medicines. Even within his own ruling Sandinista party, Ortega faces opposition to Chávez's plan. Edwin Castro, the leader of the Sandinista parliamentarian faction, dismissed the idea that the Nicaraguan Army might fight, together with Venezuela, in a likely U.S. attack. "The Sandinista Front wrote in the Constitution (of 1987) that we have a defensive Army. It is prohibited to have an offensive Army," Castro said.
Despite the dim prospects for an ALBA military force, the armed forces in South America (with the exception of Colombia) are tied to new left of center regimes which are less sympathetic to the wider U.S. agenda in the region. Unlike the 1970s, the military establishment is beholden to civilian rule and is unlikely to intervene in the political arena by staging an armed coup.
Take for example the case of Argentina. The Minister of Defense, a woman named Nilda Garré, was a sympathizer with the Montonero guerrillas of the 1970s. A former political prisoner during the military dictatorship, Garré wants to bring rogue military officers to justice for past human rights abuses. Before coming to the Ministry of Defense, Garré was the Argentine ambassador to Venezuela. In Caracas, Garré was a vocal Chávez supporter, and when she got the call from Kirchner offering her the new job the Venezuelan president
phoned her in congratulation.
Garré has severed ties to the notorious military School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC) located in Fort Benning, Georgia. In taking the momentous step to break with the school, Garré followed on the heels of Chávez, who severed ties in January, 2004.
Over the years, U.S.-Argentine military relations have been quite cordial, but recently ties have become strained. According to an official who I spoke with at the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, in 2006 there wasn't a sole bilateral military meeting between the U.S. and Argentina.
Up to that point the two nations had met every year. Initially Argentina could not fix a date but when the government proposed an alternative time to meet, the U.S. responded that "the
Pentagon was being restructured" and could not schedule a summit.
Garré's counterpart in Chile is another woman, Vivianne Blanlot. She has been similarly
confrontational towards the military top brass identified with past human rights abuses. Recently there's been a lot of cooperation between the Chilean and Argentine armed forces. The two countries signed an agreement to form a combined military force for peacekeeping
missions which will be ready by the end of 2008.
Chávez's ALBA military initiative is probably a non-starter, but in the Southern Cone the armed forces have turned a critical page in their evolution. Though the military establishment is not strictly anti-U.S., it has become less identified with American strategic goals. It's a historic reversal for Washington, which now faces a much less inviting political environment within the region.
In the wake of President Hugo Chávez’s stinging defeat in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, it’s incumbent on the South American left to take stock of events in Venezuela and learn from the Chavistas’ mistakes. It’s the first time that Chávez has lost an electoral contest, and the Venezuelan President no longer looks as invulnerable as he has in the past. Foreign policy hawks in Washington will surely feel emboldened by yesterday’s electoral debacle in Venezuela; they may see it as an opportunity to go on the offensive and to turn back many of the progressive accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution. It’s a dangerous time for the South American left, which must guard against U.S. machinations as well as its own domestic right opposition while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of demagogic populism.
Having recently won reelection to a six year term by a wide margin, Chávez had the opportunity to deepen the process of social and economic change occurring throughout the country. But his constitutional referendum confused voters with a host of contradictory measures. The opposition did not increase its voter share, but was able to squeek out a tiny margin of victory when some of the Chávez faithful grew disenchanted and failed to turn out to vote. True, the U.S. Agency for International Development funded vocal anti-Chávez students who campaigned against the referendum and the CIA could have played a role in helping to strengthen the opposition. But no matter how much the Venezuelan President railed against the United States and outside interference, ultimately the Chavistas lost because of their own tactical missteps. What went wrong?
Though Chávez and his followers had already enacted a new constitution in 1999, the President claimed that the document was in need of an overhaul so as to pave the way for a new socialist state. Chávez sought to reduce the workweek from 44 to 36 hours; to provide social security to informal sector workers such as housewives, street vendors and maids; to shift political power to grassroots communal councils; to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or health; to extend formal recognition to Afro-Venezuelan people; to require gender parity for all public offices; to formalize the right to adequate housing and a free public education; to protect the full rights of prisoners, and to create new types of property managed by cooperatives and communities. The progressive provisions, certainly glossed over in the mainstream American media, would have done much to challenge entrenched interests in Venezuela and encourage the growth of a more egalitarian and democratic society based on social, gender, racial, and economic equality.
Unfortunately, Chávez sabotaged any hope of success by simultaneously seeking to enhance his own personal power. Over the past few years, the fundamental contradiction of the Bolivarian Revolution has been the constant tension between grassroots empowerment, on the one hand, and the cult of personality surrounding Chávez, on the other. In pressing for his constitutional referendum, Chávez played right into the hands of the opposition. Under the provisions, Chávez could declare a state of emergency and the government would have the right to detain individuals without charge and to close down media outlets. Chávez’s own term limit would be extended from six to seven years, and he would be allowed the right to run indefinitely for president. On the other hand, inconsistently, governors and mayors would not be allowed to run for reelection. Perhaps, if Chávez had merely backed the progressive provisions within the referendum and not tried to increase his own power, the vote would have tipped the other way. But by backing the retrograde measures, Chávez gave much needed ammunition to the opposition.
It’s a severe setback for Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, but does not necessarily represent a total rout. Chávez still retains the presidency until 2012, and the Chavistas control the National Assembly, state governments, and the courts. While opposition media such as Globovisión routinely attack Chávez, the government has been able to level the playing field somewhat through sponsorship of state media. What’s more, the opposition, which has historically enjoyed little credibility, still lacks a charismatic leader who might rival Chávez in stature and popularity.
On the other hand the opposition, having sensed victory, might launch another recall referendum in 2010, halfway into Chávez’s term in office. Meanwhile, for the Venezuelan President prominent defections from within the Chavista ranks such as General Raúl Baduel must come as an alarming sign. It would be tempting for the State Department to try and pry off former Chavistas in an effort to derail the Chávez experiment (if it hasn’t already tried). If a well known figure such as Baduel or an ex- Chavista like him should emerge, he might garner more of a popular following than polarizing figures from the more traditional opposition. A more moderate ex-Chavista politician, if he or she ever succeeded in coming to power, could do a lot of damage by derailing radical reform under the guise of reconciliation and bringing pro- and anti- Chávez forces together.
In order to head off political disaster, Chávez must take immediate measures to ensure that yesterday’s victory doesn’t turn into a future rout. While the cult of personality around Chávez helped to solidify his movement in the early years, his demagogic populism and centralizing tendencies have now become a serious liability and must be jettisoned as soon as possible. If he follows through on promises of fostering greater "participatory democracy" through the more progressive measures called for under the referendum for example, then he may be able to prevent the opposition from turning the clock back on the Chávez experiment.
Failure to do so would almost surely have dire political consequences for the entire region. For all its internal contradictions, ridiculous missteps and even failures, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution remains the most progressive hope for change in the hemisphere. If it should sputter or get somehow derailed, then Brazil would become the dominant South American player and would advance a much more conservative social agenda. As I describe in my upcoming book, Revolution! South America and The Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April, 2008), there is now a kind of battle for hearts and minds in the region; it’s a contest to see which nation can have the most influence on the smaller countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Right now Chávez, who seeks to reverse U.S.-style "neo-liberal" economic initiatives, enjoys warm economic and political ties with Bolivia and Ecuador, two nations which are advancing a more radical political and social agenda. In contrast to Chávez, Brazilian President Lula favors something called the "Santiago Consensus," a kind of watered down neo-liberalism with a human face and some social protections. The idea of Brazil taking the regional lead with help from U.S. ally Chile is a depressing prospect. On the other hand, if Chávez can learn from yesterday’s debacle and successfully re-energize his political movement, then Venezuela could still represent a strong countervailing force within South America. If he fails, then Bolivia and Ecuador, chronically unstable nations facing strong domestic right wing opposition, will be isolated and the prospects for spearheading a more radical social agenda throughout the hemisphere will be greatly reduced.
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took his oath of office for a second term, he swore it in the name of Jesus Christ, who he called "the greatest socialist of history." It's hardly an accident that Chavez would hark on Christianity in addressing his people. For years, Venezuela has been a religious battleground, with Chavez pursuing a combative relationship with the Catholic Church.
In Venezuela, Catholics have a potent political voice and make up about 70% of the country's population. Ever since taking office in 1999, Chavez has repeatedly clashed with the clergy. The President frequently chastised Venezuelan bishops, accusing them of complicity with corrupt administrations that preceded his rule.
To a certain extent, a clash was inevitable. Unlike some other Latin American countries which were characterized by so-called liberation theology, the Venezuelan Church has never had a leftist tendency. According to observers, as few as one in 10 priests identify with the left and out of more than 50 bishops only a handful are sympathetic to Chavez.
The Venezuelan Church: A Bastion of Conservatism
Despite the conservative nature of the Church, relations between the clergy and the Chavez government got off to a reasonably good start. After he was first elected in 1998, Chavez proclaimed his devotion to the Church and Catholic social doctrine. Venezuelan bishops in turn supported the social programs that Chavez had outlined during his presidential campaign. Bishops welcomed Chavez's calls to end corruption, to foster a more equitable distribution of wealth, transparent voting, and an end to the ruling class' special privileges.
Thing went awry, however, in July, 1999 when Chavez personally met with Monsignor Baltazar Porras at the headquarters of the Episcopal Conference. Porras, the Archbishop of the Andean city of Merida and chairman of the Episcopal Conference, met with Chavez for two hours. Emerging from the meeting, Porras declared that the Venezuelan government had opted to cut its traditional subsidies to the Church by up to 80%. The new rules, Porras said, would oblige clerical authorities to adjust to "the new realities of the country, and to figure out how to search for self financing." Porras became a vocal critic of the regime; in Caracas he received the backing of the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy.
Another point of friction was Chavez's calls for a new Constitution. Church leaders feared that Chavez's secret agenda in calling for the new constitution was the imposition of a Cuban-style communist regime. Porras declared that Chavez was fomenting "fear and hate" and dividing Venezuelans in his campaign to draft a constitution.
Traveling to Merida
Recently I was in Caracas to give a talk and decided to take a night bus to Merida, a city located about seven hundred kilometers south-west of the capital. I was eager to learn more about the Church in Venezuela, and how its relations had deteriorated so dramatically with Chavez.
I drifted off to sleep in the bus. Climbing up and down through the mountains, the landscape was dotted with cacti. By the next day, exhausted from the trip, I made my way to a posada or inn near the Central Square. Five years earlier, I'd stayed in the same place while pursuing research for my dissertation on the foreign oil industry in Venezuela.
Merida is a favored tourist destination and feels like a Venezuelan version of Switzerland with hotels, cyber cafes and vegetarian restaurants appealing to foreigners. In the main square of the city, Venezuelan hippies in their twenties play guitar and sell artisan work. Despite its traditional religious outlook, Merida also has a university which has had a long tradition of leftist politics.
A few days after recuperating from my long trip, I headed to the Cathedral in Merida's central square. There, I spoke with Monsignor Alfredo Torres, General Vicar of the local Archdiocese. A long time fixture of the local church establishment, Torres went into the seminary when he was fifteen years old.
When I asked Torres how relations had deteriorated so badly between Chavez and Porras, the local clergyman explained, "The militarist, socialistic bent of the government was always a critical point for the Archbishop."
Church-Military Relations Break Down
By 2000, the role of the military had certainly become a controversial political issue. During his first year in power, Chavez, himself a former paratrooper, faced a very unenviable political environment. Congress and the Supreme Court were in the hands of the opposition, as were the majority of mayoral districts and governorships. Meanwhile, oil stood at only $7 a barrel.
In desperation, Chavez called on the armed forces to carry out ambitious public works projects---the so-called Plan Bolivar 2000. The plan proved reportedly divisive within the military, with some soldiers feeling uncomfortable in their new social role.
The Church missed no opportunity to criticize Chavez's military policy. Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco remarked publicly that "something is making the armed forces nervous." Velasco recommended that the armed forces should meet to decide whether soldiers should have the right to express themselves openly.
Furthermore, Velasco remarked sarcastically, the Minister of Defense, Ismael Hurtado Soucre, always tried to smooth over problems and make believe that nothing was wrong within the military ranks. That elicited a sarcastic rejoinder in turn from Hurtado, who remarked that the Church certainly had its own share of problems.
Chavez vs. Castillo Lara
Chavez did not assuage the Church's fears when he declared famously that several bishops and the Vatican's former representative in Venezuela, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, had allied with the country's "rancid oligarchy."
"It would appear," said Chavez, "that a very small group of bishops has something personal against the President."
Even more inflammatory still, Chavez suggested that priests such as Castillo ought to subject themselves to an exorcism because "the devil has snuck into their clerical robes."
In a personal riposte, Chavez sought to link Castillo with earlier corrupt administrations. "Where were you when the bankers robbed more than $7,000,000,000 under the government of Rafael Caldera, your personal friend, during the financial crisis of 1994? Did you say anything when the police massacred the people on the 27th of February [during the Caracazo, massive urban riots in Caracas in 1989]?"
Incensed, Castillo compared Chavez to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Meanwhile, the Church grew increasingly more concerned about the Constitution, which failed to guarantee the protection of life beginning at conception.
War of Words Escalates: Vargas Tragedy
In the midst of the escalating battle over the Constitution, disaster struck when rains hit the state of Vargas, on the coast near Caracas. I had the occasion to visit the area over this past summer, and what one is immediately struck by is the precarious housing built on steep hillsides. When the rains hit, they created massive landslides that swept away everything. A catastrophe of epic proportions, the Vargas rains led to the deaths of between 10 and 20,000 people.
In Vargas, I spoke with people who were still, seven years later, waiting to be evacuated. Living in dilapidated housing and mired in poverty, their plight was certainly depressing. Nevertheless, it should be said that the government carried out a Herculean job, evacuating 190,000 people. I visited one recently built housing complex, Ciudad Miranda, which housed many of the refugees.
At a moment of crisis, the Church insinuated itself into the Vargas crisis by making critical public statements. In a reference to Chavez, Archbishop Velasco remarked that the Vargas tragedy was the "wrath of God," because "the sin of pride is serious and nature itself reminds us that we don't have all the power or abilities."
Chavez's Papal Gambit
As prominent Church figures such as Castillo and Velasco became more combative, Chavez sought to override local opposition by traveling personally to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul II. Venezuela has attached much importance to its relationship to the Vatican and has an Ambassador there.
Chavez took advantage of his Papal interview to confess. "It was extraordinary for me, a practicing Catholic," Chavez remarked, "…to have words with the Pope."
Chavez, who discussed controversial issues with the Pope such as abortion, also sought to court the Pontiff by emphasizing common concerns such as the "savage" neo-liberal economic order, "which had brought people to misery, especially in the Third World."
A month after his trip to Rome, the Papal Nuncio in Caracas, Leonardo Sandri, brought Chavez a verbal message from the Pope regarding the constitutional process in Venezuela. According to Sandri, the Sacred See expressed its concerns about guaranteeing life from its original conception within Venezuela's new constitution. Later, Chavez met with Archbishop Velasco, who also expressed his concerns about the right to life.
Church-State Relations Break Down in Merida
Back in Merida, I query Torres about the breakdown in relations.
"Here in the archdiocese," Torres remarked, "we got into a very precarious financial situation. We receive money from the parishes, cultural and academic activities and the well organized Archdiocese museum. We get financing from private companies and banks, but the government doesn't help."
Torres said that the government had withdrawn funding from the archdiocese and seminary. He claimed, moreover, that the Church had experienced some financial turmoil. The Church, he said, had media enterprises in Merida including print, radio, and TV.
However, he declared that recently El Vigilante, a Church newspaper, had been forced to close for economic reasons. Meanwhile, the TV and radio station had very few financial resources to continue their work.
There were other disputes early on which set the course for future conflict. For example, a quarrel over the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Hospital Foundation, which had been managed by the Merida clergy since the mid 1990s, turned nasty.
"The Church managed the local hospital," Torres explained. "The government provided the money for the staff. The archbishop sought equipment abroad. But, the government disregarded our contract after Chavez assumed power."
In Merida: Porras vs. Chavez
According to the government, Porras was corrupt. The Merida State Governor, Florencio Porras [a long time Chavista, retired Captain and active participant in Chavez's aborted 1992 coup against then President Carlos Andres Perez], declared that public funding as well as private donations which were supposed to go towards the maintenance of the hospital had disappeared and Baltazar Porras was responsible.
Baltazar Porras shot back that there was a "witch hunt" against him. Chavez was personally apprised of the matter and the Attorney General proceeded with an investigation into Porras' bank accounts.
Dramatically, the police as well as the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, a special police and intelligence force [known by its Spanish acronym Disip] moved into the hospital and confiscated the facility's records. The action was coordinated by federal authorities including the office of the national Comptroller General.
In a further move which antagonized the Church, state authorities actually took over the management of the Hospital Foundation. Torres bristles when discussing the incident. Porras, he says, was accused of being a thief when in actuality it was the state which had behaved crookedly. The authorities, he said, confiscated the hospital's equipment.
Even as the government moved to clamp down on the Church in Merida, Chavez himself was heating up the rhetoric. The President accused Porras of being an "adeco [members of the discredited and corrupt political party Accion Democratica, which had ruled the country for years prior to Chavez's election] with a cassock." Adding fuel to the fire, Chavez remarked that the Church was "an accomplice in corruption."
Chavez's holy war threatened to spill over and destabilize relations with the Vatican. In late 2000, John Paul II remarked that "a democracy without values becomes authoritarianism." The Pope made his remarks during an accreditation ceremony for the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, Ignacio Quintana.
In Venezuela, politicians tried to make sense of the Pope's comments. Jose Vicente Rangel, the Minister of External Relations, declared that he agreed with John Paul's statement. "In that sense I am more Popish than the Pope," Rangel said.
In speaking with the press, Quintana assured journalists that the Pope "respected" the Bolivarian Revolution. The new ambassador claimed, furthermore, that high authorities within the Vatican sympathized with Chavez and the social changes taking place in Venezuela.
Lurking in the background however, Porras added his own spin to John Paul's address. When the Pope said "a democracy without values," Porras said, the Pontiff was clearly referring to Venezuela.
While it's unclear what the Pope exactly meant, the Vatican sought to appease conservatives by giving the nod to Ignacio Velasco. In early 2001 the Archbishop of Caracas was named a Cardinal by the Pope. As such, he represented a dangerous potential enemy for Chavez.
In a gesture of congratulations for his new position, Quintana, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, gave the Caracas Archbishop a pectoral cross made out of gold.
Chavez himself traveled back to the Vatican shortly after the 9-11 attacks to meet with the Pope. In an effort to smooth relations and emphasize common ground, Chavez remarked, "The Pope has declared in the last few days something that we have also said: that we do not support war…The war is against hunger…The Pope has said that one cannot respond to violence with more war. I also say the same, for that reason I came to seek his guidance."
Lead up to coup
In late 2001, Chavez was confronting an angry opposition led by old guard labor, business and oil executives at the state run oil company, PdVSA. The Church seemed to be moving towards the opposition camp. In January, 2002 Andre Dupuy, the Papal Nuncio, told Chavez that he was worried about a possible "radicalization" of the internal conflict in Venezuela.
Chavez in turn shot back that Dupuy was interfering in the country's political affairs. In another address the same month, Chavez characterized the Church as a "tumor" on society. A few days later, perhaps recanting that he had gone too far, Chavez invited Venezuelan bishops to participate in a dialogue, an offer the clergy rejected.
From there it was all downhill. The Church joined forces with the CTV, a large labor union, and Fedecamaras, the business federation. The outspoken Porras declared that, "governments that are democratically elected which do not comply with their promises become illegitimate."
The President of the Episcopal Conference added that anti-government strikes and protests, which had intensified, were not part of a conspiracy but the consequence of Chavez's own dogged behavior.
Chavez responded with more hyperbolic rhetoric of his own, suggesting that archbishop Velasco "pray a little" and "look into his conscience." Speaking during his radio and TV show, Alo, Presidente!, Chavez criticized Velasco's interference in the political arena. Chavez praised the Pope, while criticizing what he called "a small group of clergy that doesn't amount to more than five people."
The Chavez/Porras Interview
It wasn't long, however, before the "small group" actively moved into the camp of those seeking to overturn Chavez's government. During the April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Velasco sided with the opposition against the president. Velasco, who had earlier met with Chavez during the constitutional controversy, even offered his residence as a meeting place for the coup plotters.
What is more, he signed the "Carmona decree" that swept away Venezuela's democratic institutions. Senior Catholic bishops themselves attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona, Venezuela's Dictator-For-a-Day.
In an ironic twist, Chavez personally called Porras from the presidential palace, Miraflores, and the Archbishop agreed to act as the President's personal custodian and guarantor in the midst of the coup. On April 12, Chavez was brought to Tiuna Fort, a military facility in Caracas.
There, at 3:40 PM Chavez was received at the doors by Porras himself as well as José Luis Azuaje, the Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference. According to Porras, who was later interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the two spoke for hours in the midst of the tense political situation.
"He [Chavez] was serene," Porras explained, "very serene, and spoke to us in an intimate, confessional tone…We wanted to give him strength and energy to examine the present and to be able to look towards the future."
Porras added, "Chavez asked me for forgiveness for the way he had treated me." According to the Archbishop, Chavez moreover expressed sorrow that he had not been able to achieve a more amicable relationship with the Church.
Poisonous Relations Return
After his interview with Porras, Chavez was taken to the remote island of Orchila. Cardinal Velasco later confirmed that he too went to Orchila, where he spoke with the Venezuelan President. According to Velasco, Chavez forgave himself and the two reportedly even prayed together.
Shortly thereafter Chavez was triumphantly restored to power. Later, he clutched a crucifix when giving evidence to a televised parliamentary commission investigating the deaths of 17 marchers who participated in an anti-government demonstration and later coup attempt.
Meanwhile, the Episcopal Conference drafted a statement condemning the "tragic occurrences" of April, 2002. Bishops stated, however, that "in the current moment of uncertainty and tension it is necessary for the government and society to open a space for real dialogue." Porras added that the goodwill of the president should be demonstrated with concrete deeds.
In an effort to appease the Church, Chavez later requested that the Church help to mediate in the ongoing conflict with the political opposition, which heated up later that year during an oil lock out. Bizarrely, the opposition called on the Church to exorcise Chavez in an effort to counter possession by demons.
Velasco, who apparently thought the request went too far, ruled out the possibility but was still critical of the government. In the midst of the escalating war of words, John Paul II called for peace and reconciliation.
Whatever goodwill had existed following the coup quickly dissipated. Chavez later stated that "there are bishops from the Catholic Church who knew a coup was on the way, and they used church installations to bring coup plotters together ... those clerics are immoral and spokesmen for the opposition."
Meanwhile, a government commission recommended that the Attorney General's office open an investigation into Cardinal Velasco and Baltazar Porras for presumed participation in the April coup. Velasco claimed to have received death threats. When the Cardinal died about a year after the coup, removing one of the key opposition figures in the Church, riot police had to disperse crowds with rubber bullets at the funeral.
As the funeral procession proceeded, Chavez supporters shouted insults such as "Justice has been done---he was a coup plotter!", and "The rats bury their rat!" Reportedly, pro-government demonstrators also stormed the cathedral where Velasco lay in state.
Merida: an Embattled City
During the tumultuous days after the coup, Porras found himself besieged even within his home town of Merida. A manifesto soon appeared in the city, published by the "Revolutionary Justice, Truth and Dignity Movement."
In the pamphlet, the group declared that Porras was persona non grata, a traitor and a political fanatic. The manifesto claimed that Porras was "a destructive, disruptive, agitating, subversive element" for society. The group also attacked Velasco, who was referred to as "Judas."
In late 2002, Porras was verbally insulted by Chavez followers in the Merida State Legislature. Porras had been invited to speak on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Merida Cardinal Jose Humberto Quintero. Chavez officials from the State Legislature held banners and interrupted the proceedings by shouting.
I have always been struck by the religious tone in the city of Merida. When I was first there as a graduate student, in 2001, I observed many shops selling religious artifacts and candles. Over this past summer, when I returned, I saw the main church full of people during Sunday mass. Speaking with local residents in Merida, I learned that the city had been touched by political change.
The woman who managed the posada where I was staying remarked that social programs initiated after the coup had made a modest difference in the lives of meridenos. Her children, for example, were now attending some of the new Bolivarian schools (she complained, however, that parents had to shell out money of their own to maintain the school).
Poor people, she said, were now receiving food at the local government sponsored soup kitchens. Near to the posada on a side street, I saw a cooperatively run restaurant sponsored by the government's vuelvan caras or "turning lives around" program.
To get more information about changes in Merida society, I headed to a government building on the main square, near the Cathedral. Peering around inside, I noticed that the offices were plastered with posters of Chavez, Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar.
Upstairs, I spoke with Ruben Aguila Cerati, Director of Electoral Politics for Chavez's MVR party in the State of Merida, and a former member of the Venezuelan Communist Party. Cerati, a colorful, jolly man who had been a guerrilla fighter himself, explained to me that gender relations had changed dramatically.
"Today we have 153,000 meridenos registered in the MVR [Chavez's political party]. Fifty three percent of these people are women. In the political assemblies, women are the dominant force. I can't say there is no machismo here in Merida, but women have been liberated."
Merida Church and Social Reforms
Not everyone has embraced the social changes in the city, however. Back in the main cathedral, Torres spoke of chronic poverty in Merida's barrios, remarking that "change for the better has not reached the people, who continue to search for a means of survival."
Torres, echoing the criticisms of the opposition, also touched on the issue of insecurity. "There's been an increase in criminal activity," he said. "Merida used to be a very safe area."
"That's the government's fault?" I asked.
"The government hasn't acted to adopt the necessary measures to stop crime," he replied. "People are afraid to go out at night. You didn't notice this before, there wasn't so much violence."
I asked Torres about the controversial role of Cuban doctors who had come to Venezuela to provide medical assistance for poor residents.
"We think that…this assistance has not resolved the health problem amongst the people," Torres answered. He criticized conditions in a local hospital, remarking that "the service is horrible; people need to buy sheets, medicine and other necessities."
"Would you prefer that the Cuban doctors leave the country?" I asked.
"The doctors have helped," Torres conceded. "However, the overall health situation hasn't changed."
I turned the discussion towards education, a historically contentious issue between the Church and Chavez authorities. Torres admitted that the Bolivarian schools had set up new cafeterias, a positive development. In an echo of what the Senora had said in the posada, however, he criticized the government for not providing necessary assistance to local schools.
"A sign of this phenomenon," Torres exclaimed, "is that if you want a place in a Catholic school they are all filled up. Everyone wants to get a spot."
Government and Church Spar Over Land
Another controversial measure pushed by Chavez has been land reform. I had wanted to tour the countryside but unfortunately fell sick with an acute case of bronchitis and had to curtail my trip. I did, however, query Torres about the issue.
The clergyman voiced serious reservations. In the wake of the land reform, he said, the campesinos had become radicalized and this had led to a serious confrontation "and an invasion of farms which brings problems and puts a break on development."
I wanted to get Torres' views on land reform as well. Before conducting my interview with the local priest, I had read an article in La Frontera, a local opposition paper, arguing that local cattle ranchers had been obliged to hire hit men to defend themselves, ostensibly against kidnapping.
The Minister of Interior accused the ranchers of inflating the kidnapping figures in an effort to justify the hiring of hit men, who had in turn killed campesinos [the secretary of the campesino federation has said that his colleagues have been killed by the hit men "as a result of the campesino struggle for land"].
Torres conceded that violence had escalated in the countryside. However, he said the government was responsible for encouraging an overall climate of delinquent behavior which did not help the situation.
"I think all of this government rhetoric starts to generate violence," he said.
Across the square I spoke with Cerati about the rural situation. He began first by extolling Chavez's various "mission" programs which had transformed the countryside.
"The campesinos now know how to read and write," he exclaimed enthusiastically. "Here there is no longer any illiteracy: that is extraordinary."
The discussion then turned to health matters, and I queried Cerati about the Cuban doctors. "Campesinos," he noted, "who had never seen a doctor now have them right at their side. The Cuban doctors have incorporated themselves into the peasantry. The campesinos are not suspicious of communism."
Unlike Torres, who blamed the government for rural violence, Cerati pointed the finger at powerful interests. "Campesinos," he said, "have been killed and assassinated by these landlords. This has happened in the south of Lake Maracaibo, in Barinas, and in Yaracuy. The land belongs to the campesinos, the revolutionaries."
"Merida has traditionally been very conservative and dominated by the Church," I remarked. "How do you see the situation in the countryside, is it the Church supporting the landlords, and the government supporting the campesinos?"
"The clergy has always been right wing," Cerati answered. "It's always represented the oligarchies, the bourgeoisie. But, now the majority of the lower tier clergy are with the Bolivarian process. There's an incredible difference between the clergy here in the city of Merida and the priests out in the countryside."
Castillo Lara Turns Up the Pressure
Porras meanwhile backed efforts to recall Chavez as president. In 2003 he remarked that Chavez had abused his power and his regime was a profound "social failure." Chavez shot back that Porras had become a spokesperson for the opposition and should take off his cassock because he was not a dignified man of Christ. "God is with the Bolivarian Revolution," Chavez said, "and here there are people with cassocks who oppose the political changes that we are carrying out."
In his own retort, Porras responded that in Venezuela peace and goodwill had deteriorated, while poverty, unemployment, corruption, violence, homicides and kidnapping had increased.
Porras warned about the rise of cults inspired by 20th century fascist leaders, and went so far as to equate Chavismo with Franco, Nazism, and fascism. Porras' frontal offensive was echoed by other Church leaders such as Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who called for civil disobedience against the Chavez government.
With Velasco now gone, high Church officials looked isolated within the new political environment, characterized by a fractured opposition and ascendant Chavez. Porras, though, denied any significant political division within Church ranks. The archbishop met personally with John Paul II, who was reportedly very worried about political conflict in Venezuela and sought a peaceful solution to the polarization.
Pope Benedict: A New Direction?
After John Paul II died in April, 2005 Chavez again went to Rome, this time to meet with the new Pope Benedict XVI. According to Father Pedro Freites, who heads the Venezuelan School in Rome and had formerly been the head of Vatican radio for Latin America and the Caribbean, Castillo Lara did not represent the Church when he called for civil disobedience in Venezuela.
However, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional he remarked that Benedict was "aware of the situation in Venezuela and of the serious danger posed to democracy." Castillo Lara, he added, had ties with all cardinals and had been the governor of the Vatican State. He had submitted reports, and the Pope was concerned that a dictatorship might be imposed in Venezuela. Ratzinger himself, Freites remarked, was close to Castillo Lara and had also spoken with Porras.
During his meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Benedict handed Chavez a letter outlining the Church's concerns. In the note, the Pope raised fears that religious education was being squeezed out of some Venezuelan schools. He also touched upon Venezuela's public health programs, expressing concern that the right to life be maintained "from its inception."
Chavez reportedly sought to overcome his government's differences with the Church. At the end of their meeting, Chavez presented the Pope with a portrait of Simon Bolivar, the mythical Venezuelan independence leader who Chavez idolizes. The picture bore an inscription from Bolivar's will, saying that he remained, at long last, a Catholic.
Following the meeting, Chavez declared that the crisis between his government and the Church had its "limits in time, space, and personalities." The conflict that had existed, Chavez continued, had to do with a very small group of people. Moreover, he was committed to "turn the page" and start over, owing to his "sense of responsibility" towards Venezuela and the doctrine of Christ.
Church Hardliners Isolated
Indeed, Chavez had just reason to feel relieved. Already, the Church had seemed to adopt a more conciliatory stance when it replaced the hard line French conservative Papal nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy, with the Italian Giacinto Berlocco. Reportedly, the new nuncio was instructed to seek a less confrontational policy towards Chavez.
When Castillo Lara said that Venezuelans should "deny recognition" to the Chavez government, Berlocco stated that the Venezuelan Cardinal did not reflect the position of the Catholic Church in Venezuela. Chavez praised Berlocco for carrying out what he called "quiet and patient work."
What's more, after his visit with the new Pope Chavez also expressed pleasure with other new Church appointments such as Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, who in his first address called on the Church to work for unity and understanding in Venezuela, and Ubaldo Santana, the new president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.
In the political reshuffle, conservatives had been sidelined. In the race to pick a new cardinal for Venezuela, Savino, the bishop of Maracaibo, had edged out his more outspoken competitor, Porras. According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, some bishops opposed Porras for taking such a radical anti-Chavez stance which had imperiled relations with the government.
In early 2006, Castillo Lara once more attacked Chavez but his influence seemed to be much reduced. Speaking in the west of the country before thousands of worshippers participating in a pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary, the Cardinal said the country was undoubtedly becoming a dictatorship. When Chavez claimed there was a conspiracy in Rome to damage his government, Archbishop Urosa quickly grew concerned and condemned Castillo Lara's remarks.
Moving To the Future
On my recent trip, I traveled with a peace delegation to Charallave, a town outside of Caracas. Sitting in a Mennonite church, we spoke with Jorge Martin, president of a local group of pastors.
"Chavez," he told us, "has said that Church work should complement government efforts. We recognize that the church needs to do social work and that the church has a role in this area."
Indeed, even as Chavez has sparred with the Church, Protestants have become a key pillar of the president's political support. Back in Caracas, in fact, our delegation had observed a Protestant church which prepared government provided food for the poor. Martin called Pat Robertson's calls to assassinate Chavez "unfortunate." He said that in Venezuela, Protestants of all denominations had rejected the minister's comments.
Over the last few years, Chavez has done his utmost to cultivate the support of Protestants, which make up 29% of the population. He even declared that he was no longer a Catholic but a member of the Christian Evangelical Council.
In his speeches, Chavez hardly flees from religious themes and frequently quotes from the Bible. Bizarrely, he also tells his supporters in speeches that Christ was an anti-imperialist.
Chavez's rhetoric, not surprisingly, has alarmed the Catholic clergy. Freites believes that Chavez's long-term goal is to "create a parallel Church…that identifies with the revolutionary process."
While such views may be exaggerated, it is impossible to overlook religious overtones in everyday Venezuelan politics. During my visit to a government housing project in Ciudad Miranda outside Caracas, I spotted banners on the street reading, "With Chavez, Christian Socialism."
Venezuela was hardly the foremost topic on my mind when I recently traveled to Venice, Italy. All throughout the fall, I had been writing articles about political developments in South America and promoting my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press). I had gone to Venice to forget about my book for awhile and to attend an art exhibit put on by my mother, Joyce Kozloff.
One day I decided to go to the famous architectural biennale, located close to San Marco Square. To get to the exhibit, I took the vaporetto, a public boat used by Venetians to get around town. I was less interested in the usual architectural pavilions organized by individual countries than the rest of the show entitled "Cities, Architecture, and Society."
The exhibit addressed population growth in major world cities and its likely impact on people and the environment. After passing through separate rooms dealing with Bogota and Sao Paulo, I came to a section on Caracas.
As someone who has spent a decent amount of time living and working in the Venezuelan capital, I was intrigued to learn more from the exhibit. Caracas had always struck me as one of the least appealing South American cities. Loud, crime-ridden, polluted and anarchic, Caracas was in dire need of urban planning.
Smog, Buoneros, and Disorder
In 2000-2001, while pursuing research for my dissertation, I spent many months living in San Bernardino, a neighborhood located not too far from downtown Caracas. Next to my landlord’s condominium building stood an informal barrio. The housing there was improvised and was built up on the side of a steep hill.
Though San Bernardino was considered unsafe at night and the streets became deserted after 7 PM, one could at least breathe the air. The same could not be said of downtown, where my eyes and throat frequently felt sore from the smog. There, I could not walk down the street as it was clogged with so-called buoneros or informal street vendors.
After carrying out my research in downtown, I would take the subway to the Bellas Artes stop, located beneath San Bernardino. The subway came as a welcome respite to me after the relentless and daily assault on my senses. One of the few bright spots in the city, the subway system was clean and efficient.
Unfortunately, one had to get out of the subway at Bellas Artes and transfer to a bus to reach San Bernardino. Very early during my stay in Caracas, I was pick-pocketed by a gang of thieves as I was riding up the escalator in Bellas Artes. They had distracted me with a ruse on the escalator and I had little chance to see their faces.
Distressed by my experience, I found a cop and told him what had happened. We went back to the subway station, where the policeman pointed at a middle-aged man.
"That was the person who robbed you?" the cop asked.
I scrutinized the man’s face.
"I’m sorry officer," I replied after a moment. "I was robbed so fast that I couldn’t identify the thieves."
The cop was unconcerned by what I had said and took the man down to the station for questioning. As the two marched off down the platform I grew a little concerned and wondered what kind of treatment the man would receive.
For the rest of my stay in Caracas I had no more run-ins with the police. In fact, the cops seemed largely absent from the city’s streets (except for Altamira, an upper class district where they wore nifty outfits and rode bicycles). With a little effort, the police might have brought some security and order to Caracas. In San Bernardino, bunkered down in my room, I would hear the sound of distant gunshots. But, I never saw the police patrolling the neighborhood.
After my unfortunate encounter in Bellas Artes I exercised caution and did not run into more thieves.
Despite this, I had other problems. My daily bus ride to San Bernardino, for example, always proved to be a free for all. There had seemingly been little effort invested in urban planning in and around Bellas Artes, and chronic traffic would delay my trip home by up to an hour.
For relief from the smog and traffic, I would frequently go to Altamira or to Centro Comercial Sambil, a shopping mall.
2006: Return to Caracas
I left Caracas in 2001 and didn’t concern myself much more with the city’s affairs. Years later, now back in New York, I saw a harrowing film entitled Secuestro Express about kidnapping and police corruption in Caracas. The film was directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, who himself had been kidnapped. He and his friends had been grabbed, robbed of their money, ATM cards, and clothes.
The film fell under withering criticism from the government, which blasted it as an attack on life under the Chavez regime. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel denounced Secuestro Express as a "miserable film, a falsification of the truth with no artistic value."
Officials even threatened Jackubowicz with imprisonment, while the government’s film commission declined to submit the movie for Academy Award consideration. Despite this, Secuestro Express became the most popular movie in Venezuelan history.
This past summer, I received an invitation to speak in Caracas. Perhaps, I reasoned, the capital city had improved since 2001. The vision presented in Secuestro Express, I thought, must surely have been sensationalized in line with government claims. Maybe, more politically and socially conscious officials had addressed chronic problems and made Caracas a more habitable city for all. I headed back to the capital city with high hopes.
I was sorely disappointed.
To me, the city seemed more polluted, congested and unsafe than ever. Even more glaring, I saw more people than I remembered in 2001 sleeping in the street around Bellas Artes. At one point, exiting a restaurant near my hotel, a security guard warned me to exercise caution. It was about 9 PM and I felt like taking an evening walk. I didn’t see any cops anywhere in the vicinity and decided to beat a hasty retreat to the hotel.
Indeed, during my entire stay in Caracas I rarely saw policemen patrolling the streets. I quickly reverted to my usual pattern of heading to Altamira and the shopping mall in an effort to escape.
In the run up to the recent presidential election, the opposition media on TV was screaming about the lack of security under the Chavez government and urban crime.
Provea Paints a Bleak Picture
For a less biased view, I turned to Marino Alvarado, the Director of Provea, a respected human rights organization in Caracas. Provea’s office was located downtown near the National Library where I used to conduct research.
The area was scary: nearby, I spotted a young man who was drugged out of his mind and wildly gesticulating in the street.
"During the Chavez mandate," said Marino, "the security situation has worsened. We’ve seen a significant increase in homicides and robberies. The police cooperate quite a lot with criminals. Every day there’s another item in the press about another member of the police who is involved with common crime, drug trafficking, bank robbery, and rape. It’s very difficult to fight crime when the police are part of the problem."
"There are both national and municipal police forces in Caracas," Marino continued. "Nevertheless there is no coordination amongst the different police forces. Every day the violence becomes bloodier. One form of crime that has increased considerably is kidnapping. The criminals in Caracas are well armed. At this point, robbery at knife point is incredibly outdated. There are a lot of firearms on the streets. Almost always in the polls, insecurity is rated as the number one concern amongst the public."
Talking with Marino was a sobering experience. Despite the many social programs undertaken by the government, clearly much more needed to be done in Caracas to encourage a sense of civic mindedness and restore public confidence.
After several weeks in Caracas, I left the city and continued my travels. It was a relief to be rid of the paranoia, pollution and congestion in the capital.
Caracas and Its Historical Evolution
Though Venice has its own urban problems having to do with overcrowded tourism, the city has an organized system of public transportation: the water vaporettos. In contrast to Caracas, crime was not an issue in Venice and I took in the sites at a relaxing and leisurely pace.
At the architectural biennale, I read more about the urban history of Caracas. The problem, according to the exhibit, was that Caracas, originally founded in the 16th century, expanded dramatically during the 1950s oil boom. It was then that the city absorbed many rural residents who moved into informal barrios.
To this day, the city’s fabric is characterized by the barrios, which dot the steep green mountains around Caracas. Currently, 40% of city residents live in barrios. Nevertheless, Caracas is smaller than many other Latin American mega-cities, and has been blessed with a tropical climate, abundant fresh water, and fertile soil.
I was surprised to learn that prominent architects had played a role in the city’s urban planning. Robert Moses, for example, advised the city about its freeways while Le Corbusier sketched out a modernist vision that later materialized into the immense 23 Enero housing project.
Despite these early efforts at fostering order, the city grew anarchically. In the Petare district, multi-story housing grew along steep inclines. Problematically, new housing projects lacked access to public transportation. Meanwhile, the affluent, who built gated homes and golf courses, turned their back on the poor who had little access to basic services such as water, sewage, schools and jobs.
The exhibit presented some startling statistics concerning Caracas. For example, at times over 100 people were murdered in one week in the Venezuelan capital, many under the age of 18. In line with what I had witnessed and heard, Caracas was said to have weak law enforcement and a flourishing drug trade.
Saving the Barrios
I browsed the exhibit further, where I was intrigued by a multi media display showing photos and video of Caracas barrios. According to the display, local authorities had refrained from demolishing the barrios, instead embracing a "retrofitting" strategy. Today, there are small medical centers, gyms, and community kitchens that foster a sense of civic pride in poor areas.
I was particularly struck by a video dealing with a poor barrio called San Rafael/La Vega. The neighborhood, which I was unfamiliar with from my various stays in Caracas, was located in mountainous terrain. According to the exhibit, San Rafael/La Vega is one of the largest spontaneous settlements in Caracas, occupying over 400 hectares and housing some 95,000 residents.
The World Bank has sought to integrate San Rafael/La Vega, physically and socially, with the rest of Caracas. Residents themselves helped to plan the project and carry out construction. The goal of the plan has been to improve services and transportation while building new public spaces.
Gimnasios Verticales: An Innovative Strategy
In an effort to curb violence in Caracas, local authorities have pushed an innovative strategy: construction of new gyms. Informal settlements in the city have historically lacked access to sports facilities. One pioneering project, "Bello Campo," transformed a pre-existing soccer field in the municipality of Chacao into a multi-level sports complex or gimnasio vertical.
The complex, which accommodated up to 200 people, was located in between formal and informal neighborhoods. Free to all residents, Bello Campo has succeeded in bringing together a wide range of local residents. Every year, according to the exhibit, Bello Campo receives 180,000 visitors. Most importantly, since the inception of the gym crime has decreased by 45% in the neighborhood, which has become one of the safest in Chacao municipality. According to the exhibit, Bello Campo is not unique: a video display screen showed additional city locations for other gimnasios verticales.
Solving Caracas’s social problems will surely prove to be one of the most vexing and daunting challenges for President Chavez in his second term. Gimnasios verticales and urban redesign at San Rafael are promising developments. The government will have to do its utmost to integrate other barrios into the urban fabric. Failure to do so will provide further ammunition to the opposition, which will charge that the Chavez government has failed to rein in crime and insecurity.
With the Venezuelan presidential campaign shifting into high gear in advance of tomorrow’s election, Caracas looks as polarized as ever. Recent demonstrations have underscored the great political rift dividing Chavez followers from the opposition.
Last week, supporters of Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate, thronged streets and major highways. The very next day, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, dressed in their trademark red clothing, turned out onto the streets in support of the president. Some marched through Altamira, a wealthy district in the eastern section of the city which is sympathetic to Rosales.
While in Caracas I was struck by the changed political atmosphere which prevailed in the city. Indeed, much had changed since I lived in the city in 2000-2001. I had gone to Venezuela then to pursue research on my doctoral dissertation, and spent much of my time between San Bernardino, a hillside neighborhood where I had rented a room, and downtown, where I used to go to do archival work.
At that time, Chavez was still consolidating his political power and had not yet initiated controversial social and economic programs. As I recount in my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press), many folk in San Bernardino were beginning to grow suspicious of Chavez. The neighborhood had once been affluent; Nelson Rockefeller had even built a famous hotel in the area, the Hotel Avila.
In more recent years, however, poor residents had taken over a hillside next to my landlord’s condo. I was warned that the people were Colombian and should be avoided at all cost as they were violent. After I finished my day’s work at the archive downtown, I would head to the Institute of Advanced Business Studies (known by its Spanish acronym, IESA). The institute had generously agreed to provide me with a work visa in Venezuela so I could pursue my research.
The school was located a couple blocks from my apartment building, and I frequently made use of IESA’s computer room. The school, with a quiet and tranquil atmosphere cordoned off by gates, was a refuge from polluted and congested downtown. The students, who in general looked whiter than many folks in the city center, used to demonize Chavez as a dangerous radical.
I left Venezuela in the summer of 2001, and judging from my discussions with many members of the middle class, social antagonism was starting to grow. However, Caracas still hadn’t achieved the level of popular mobilization that we’ve seen in recent years. During and after the coup of 2002, however, that would change as the city became more and more polarized.
One physical symbol of the growing political radicalization within Caracas is the proliferation of street murals. Over the course of about three weeks this summer, I had the opportunity to see a lot of the new public art. At one point, while taking a grimy bus from the mountains down into downtown, I saw signs on the highway reading "Let us unite and we will be invulnerable."
The quote was attributed to Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator and independence hero against Spain whose profile appeared on the mural. Throughout the city, murals depicting patriot leaders such as Antonio Jose de Sucre are commonplace. I saw one mural of the independence fighter Felix Ribas outside of a government sponsored cooperative. Appearing next to Ribas was a portrait of Chavez, wearing his characteristic red beret.
Later, I went to Bolivar’s Native House (Casa Natal de Bolivar) in downtown. The staff was in the midst of restoration of the colonial building, which had a red brick tile roof. For Chavez, Bolivar, who liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule, carries symbolic importance. The president has renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (the government had to redo all the country’s stationery at great expense), and addresses his people on TV while sitting underneath an oil portrait of the Great Liberator.
According to Mercedes Garcia, the director of Bolivar’s Native House, Chavez had been able to awaken a historical interest amongst the masses. As a result of the president’s speeches, Garcia told me, more people were heading to Venezuelan historic sites and had undergone a psychological shift. In the schools, children were now leaning more about Bolivar than ever before. In her museum Garcia noted an increase in the amount of visitors, which now amounted to 3,500 per week. Garcia added that many soldiers were now coming to Bolivar’s House and that there was greater historical curiosity within the armed forces.
In 2000-2001, I was always careful not to linger in downtown Caracas after hours. In San Bernardino, my landlord advised me not to go out after 7 PM. Apparently my neighbors had similar ideas: in the evening, the streets around IESA were deserted. At night I would like awake in bed, the silence punctuated only by the occasional sound of distant gunshots.
During my recent trip, I cannot say that I sensed much of a drastic improvement in Caracas. In downtown I found it difficult to breathe due to the pollution. My eyes and throat frequently felt sore from the smog. Meanwhile, downtown seemed as anarchic and unsafe as ever. Indeed, I found it difficult to walk on the street as it was taken over by the buoneros (informal street vendors). The buoneros sell everything from CDs to arepas, a kind of Venezuelan corn pancake. Compared to five years earlier, there were more homeless people sleeping in the streets around Bellas Artes, a grimy area falling to pieces.
In light of their brutal everyday struggle, it is not surprising that many residents here have become politicized and routinely turn out for Chavez’s mass street rallies. To some, Chavez’s hard core supporters are a menace. Speaking to one well-to-do businessman in Altamira, a wealthy Caracas neighborhood, I inquired about activists who attended Chavez’s mass rallies. "They are fanatics," he replied.
To get more perspective about growing social polarization, I traveled to the neighborhood of Chacaito and the offices of the Venezuelan opposition party, Primero Justicia. There, I met with Gerardo Blyde, General Secretary of the party. Blyde was clean cut, had slicked back hair and wore a blazer.
Blyde admitted that in Caracas, there was a real discrimination in terms of services. The poor had little access to basic infrastructure, he commented.
"In New York," he said, "the water you get in Queens or Brooklyn is as clean as the water you receive on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. That kind of equality in services is not evident in Caracas. Unfortunately, Caracas grew in an amorphous manner which was disordered, adequate planning was not put into services, and this has given rise to chaos."
To get a sense of how the other half lived, I went to Altamira. On one day when I was there, I noticed workmen tending some flowers planted nearby. Though still polluted, the neighborhood had a fountain in the main square and tree lined streets. In the cafes, women flaunted jewelry, surprising to me in light of growing kidnapping of wealthy residents in the capital.
At a nearby store, I spoke with the same businessman who belittled anti-Chavez supporters. During the oil strike of 2002-3 [designed to shut down the oil industry and bring down the Chavez government], he remarked, well dressed and educated folk tried to keep his store from opening and surrounded the premises. Finally, he had called the police. Personally, he had just as much disdain for the elitist anti-Chavistas in Altamira as the hard core Chavistas.
Blyde admitted that in 2002 many of the elite were paranoid about the Chavistas coming into their homes. Since then, however, he said that the Caracas elite, like much of the rest of the city, was not fearful of political violence as much as everyday street crime.
"Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world," he said. "Because of the lack of employment and lack of income, the city is very violent."
Rafael Uzcategui, media coordinator at the human rights organization Provea, agreed with Blyde that much of the paranoia had decreased since 2002. However, he also stated that the political divide had widened once again in advance of the election.
Five years earlier I’d met Rafael in Caracas. At that time he had been a student at the Central University and frequently wrote for the anarchist newspaper El Libertario. Rafael was still involved with the paper, but he confided to me that he did not feel comfortable selling El Libertario on the campus of the Central University of Caracas.
There, he said, there were pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez groups. His circle was in the minority, and members of El Libertario felt pressured by both sides. Even an elder member of the group was insulted when he attempted to distribute materials. Rafael said that he was no longer on speaking terms with many former friends owing to political differences.
"There are pro-Chavez zones of city and anti-Chavez areas," Rafael said. "We have always been interested in putting on cultural events and showing movies," he added. "When we put on activities in opposition areas, we are accused of being pro- Chavez." But, he continued, "In a pro-Chavez barrio, they said we were right wing imperialists."
During the April, 2002 coup, he said, members of El Libertario had received a lot of death threats, hateful e-mail, and harassing telephone calls. The group’s Web site had been hacked and destroyed during a meeting of the World Social Forum, and they had had to launch a new page through a more secure server.
"We have had to put up with a low intensity civil war in this city," Rafael commented.
Back in 2002, Rafael said, people would judge you based on the newspaper you read. If you bought El Nacional, you were automatically perceived as anti-Chavez. If you were seen reading Ultimas Noticias, you were assumed to be pro-Chavez.
"In 2002," Rafael added, "If you went out with red on you could feel the pressure of people looking at you in the metro."
For me personally, the issue of color as a political marker is one of the most interesting facets of Caracas political life. In recent years, red has become the official color of the Chavistas. In Catia, a poor Caracas barrio, I visited a cooperative where women were busily sewing red T-shirts for the state-run oil company, PdVSA. On another occasion, I witnessed pro-Chavez followers painting over an opposition mural in front of my Caracas hotel. They were all wearing red.
On a recent trip to Coral Gables, Florida, I had the opportunity to discuss these questions with Dr. Steve Stein, an old mentor of mine who is currently the director of the Latin American Studies Program at University of Miami.
"The Sandinistas had red and black and they really used those colors a lot," Stein said. "In the nineteenth century political parties had colors in Argentina; the liberal and conservatives had light blue and red. Under Rosas’s authoritarian regime in Argentina you had to wear something red. So, color as a means of political identification has been a longtime fixture of Latin American politics." [for those interested in reading the rest of this interview, see the upcoming December edition of the Brooklyn Rail which will shortly be available online].
The name of the game in Caracas has been winning the allegiance of the middle class. According to Blyde, the vast majority of the middle class voted for Chavez in 1998.
"But," he said, "that middle class is accustomed to getting the kinds of services that are common in today’s world. They’re not rich, they’re not multimillionaires from Manhattan, they’re who have studied, who have worked hard to get their car, their apartment, their house. These people felt threatened by speeches made by Chavez: he was going against what they had built up over the past twenty or thirty years."
"Thirty years ago," Blyde continued, "there was no middle class. There were some rich people and a few families. The rest were poor, like the typical division in Latin America. They felt threatened by Chavez’s rhetoric stressing ‘Socialism for the Twenty First Century.’ They thought they were going to have their standard of living taken away. Chavez then lost the middle class."
Once, while eating in a Tasca (Spanish style restaurant) near to my hotel, I fell into discussion with a middle aged couple. The woman, who was of Spanish descent, said that if Chavez won again she would leave the country. Her husband owned a print making shop, which had done well economically. But, the two of them were fearful of Chavez’s intentions and believed that the Venezuelan president might impose communism.
Speaking to the amiable night watchman in my hotel, I asked him about growing political tensions in Caracas. He said that he was a Chavista, as was his family, but that he was not a fanatic. He disliked Chavez’s program, Alo, Presidente!, but occasionally watched the other state channel, Vive TV.
As a whole, he said, the middle class was divided. Some were with Chavez, others were against, and some comprised the so-called "ni, ni" bloc (neither with the opposition nor with the Chavistas). He personally believed that the middle class had not become very anti-U.S. as a result of Chavez´s speeches.
"People are just as consumerist as before," he said, "perhaps more as the economy is now doing better." Some middle class, he said, had sold their property after the coup and moved abroad. But then, he said, they found that life wasn´t so easy and had to return to Venezuela.
Currently local and state authorities as well as government ministries fund public murals in Caracas. My favorite was a huge piece near the Bellas Artes metro station not far from San Bernardino. The piece is comprised of several panels, each of which is perhaps one storey tall. The mural depicts Venezuelan history from the colonial period to the present. In the first panel, the mural shows prosperous owners of great cocoa plantations and black slaves rising in revolt. Another panel depicts Venezuela’s experience with oil in the twentieth century. Sitting on top of a big barrel of oil was none other than Juan Vicente Gomez, a dictator who ruled the country from 1908 to 1935. Gomez, who was installed in a U.S.-supported coup d’etat, developed a strategic alliance with American oil companies. Simultaneously, Gomez presided over the country through a repressive spy and police network. In the mural, next to Gomez, we see a prisoner holding on to the iron bars of a jail cell. The Gomez era was notorious for its horrible prisons, such as the terrible dungeon known as La Rotunda.
In supporting such public art, the Chavez authorities are clearly trying to compete with materialistic, U.S.-style billboards and advertising all over the city. In downtown Caracas, the desk clerk at my hotel remarked that in his view, the murals had not made much of an impact on public consciousness. I put some of these questions to Steve Stein.
"If we look back on the Mexican Revolution, which was probably the beginnings of this kind of political mural art," Stein said, "there was not a lot of subtlety in the great Diego Rivera or Orozco murals either. Did they actually indoctrinate people towards a certain ideology? And the answer is probably not. My sense is that after a while, you don’t even see them anymore."
As for Caracas, Stein added, we need to pose crucial questions about the overall impact of the murals. "Is the murals effect greater than the products of an international, globalized consumer society. I don’t know if I have the answer to that question."
It now looks as if Rafael Correa, a leftist candidate in Ecuador, has handily won his country’s presidential election. As of Monday morning, with about 21 percent of the ballot counted, Correa had 65 percent compared to 35 percent for Alvaro Noboa, according to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. If Correa wins, he will preside over Ecuador for a four year term.
It’s yet another feather in the cap for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had long cultivated the aspiring leader’s support. What’s more, it’s a stinging blow against the Bush administration which now must confront a much more unenviable political milieu in the region. Ecuador now joins other left leaning regimes such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Chile, all of which are sympathetic to Chavez.
Bush cannot dismiss the Correa victory as inconsequential: Ecuador is currently the second largest South American exporter of crude to the U.S. The small Andean country hosts the only U.S. military base in South America, where 400 troops are currently stationed. Correa opposes an extension of the U.S. lease at the air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights. The U.S. lease expires in 2009.
"If they want," Correa has said ironically, "we won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return."
It’s no secret that Chavez and Correa had a personal rapport. During a short stint in 2005 as finance minister under the regime of Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chavez. As a result of his diplomacy, Correa was forced out of the government. Allegedly, Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio’s back. He later visited Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez’s parents.
"It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," Correa has declared. Borrowing one of Chavez’s favorite slogans, Correa says he also supports so-called "socialism for the twenty first century."
Correa: "Whipping" Ecuador’s Politicians, and the U.S., into Shape
Unlike Chavez, Correa does not come from a military background but grew up in a middle class family; the young politician also dresses impeccably. He got his doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois and is a follower of left wing economist and Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.
To his credit, Correa spent a year volunteering in a highland town called Zumbahua and speaks Quichua, an indigenous language. Natives from Zumbahua remember Correa as a man who walked two or three hours to remote villages in a poncho and broken shoes to give classes.
Correa pursued an amusing campaign. During rallies, he would bounce on stage to his campaign anthem, set to the tune of Twisted Sister’s "We’re Not Going to Take It." As the music blared, Correa would break out a brown leather belt, which he would flex along to the music.
For Correa, the belt became the chief slogan of his campaign: "Dale Correa." In Spanish, the phrase means "Give Them the Belt." Correa promised to use that belt to whip Ecuador’s politicians into shape.
Correa campaigned on pledges to prioritize social spending over repaying debt. He has even stated that the Andean country might want to default. He also declared that he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil producers doing business in the country. Correa says he wants to increase funds for the poor and opposes a free trade deal with the U.S.
"We are not against the international economy," Correa has stated, "but we will not negotiate a treaty under unequal terms with the United States."
Correa, too, has nothing but contempt for George Bush.
When he was recently asked about Chavez’s "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world" [after he was defeated by Noboa in the first round of voting Correa toned down his rhetoric, stating that his comments about Bush were "imprudent" and that Ecuador would like to continue its strong tries to the United States]
Noboa Plays the Chavez Card
In an effort to scare voters, Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate in Ecuador, sought to label Correa as a Chavez puppet. Noboa, in an allusion to Chavez’s military background, labeled his adversary "Colonel Correa."
Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade, Noboa even declared, "the Chavez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery." If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas.
Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chavez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush’s friendship with the bin Laden family.
"They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."
Chavez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chavez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence.
The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chavez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential run off in October, in which Correa came in second. In his own inflammatory broadside, Chavez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right."
In Ecuador, Chavez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn’t pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round."
The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chavez’s meddling.
Ecuadoran Indigenous Peoples and Chavez
Judging from the early electoral returns, Ecuadoran voters, many of whom are indigenous, disregarded Noboa’s fire and brimstone rhetoric. Indians, who account for 40% of Ecuador’s population of 13 million, are a potent political force in the country. Correa has capitalized on indigenous support. He represents Alianza País, a coalition that garnered the support of indigenous and social movements which brought down the government of Lucio Gutierrez in April 2005.
What does the Correa win mean for Chavez’s wider hemispheric ambitions?
As I explain in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), Chavez has long sought to cultivate ties to Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. Ecuadoran Indians have long feared that their traditional lands were being exploited to serve a rapacious United States intent on corporate expansion. U.S. missionaries have fueled the resentment. According to indigenous activists, the missionaries hastened the penetration of U.S. corporations. A key example, according to Huaorani Indians, was the petroleum industry which worked with the missionaries to open up traditional lands.
Chavez has done much to cultivate the support of indigenous peoples. He plays up his own indigenous roots, for example. He also expelled the Protestant New Tribes Mission from Venezuela, which he said was collaborating with the CIA.
"We don’t want the New Tribes here," Chavez declared. "Enough colonialism! 500 years is enough!"
In opposing the missionaries, Chavez has echoed the agenda of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, who called for the expulsion of North American missionaries from their country. CONAIE, Ecuador’s indigenous federation, in fact endorses many of Chavez’s positions such as an end to U.S. militarization in the region and an end to neo liberal economic policies. CONAIE, like Rafael Correa, wants Ecuador to terminate the U.S. lease at the Manta military base. CONAIE, as well as the movement’s political wing Patchakutik, has backed Chavez. CONAIE in fact has condemned the "fascist" opposition in Venezuela and derided U.S. interventionism.
Chavez has not only cultivated political ties with hemispheric leaders but also with social movements from below. In an innovative move, Chavez has sponsored something called the Bolivarian Congress of Peoples in Caracas. CONAIE officials attended the Congress, as did Humberto Cholango, president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador. Cholango remarked at the time, "no one can stop this [Bolivarian] Revolution in Venezuela, we will keep on defeating the Creole oligarchies and the Yankeesthe time has come for South America to rise up to defeat the empireLong live the triumph of the Venezuelan people."
Cholango is an important link in the future Chavez-Correa alliance. His Kichwa Confederation has backed Correa. In a communiqué, the Confederation wrote, "We will not let Noboa, who owns 120 companies and made his fortune by exploiting children in his companies, take control of the country to deliver water, deserts, oil, mines, forests and biodiversity to big private transnational corporations."
Ecuadoran Oriente: Area of Conflict
Chavez has exchanged oil for political influence throughout the region in such countries as Nicaragua, as I explained in my earlier Counterpunch column [see "A New Kind of Oil Diplomacy: In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?, November 7, 2006]. In Ecuador, Chavez may opt for a similar strategy but here the Venezuelan leader has to watch out for pitfalls that could reveal serious contradictions within his movement.
With a Correa administration in place, Chavez will be in an advantageous position to advance his plans for hemispheric energy integration. Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador has been involved in longstanding negotiations with Venezuela to refine its crude. Ecuador is also interested in acquiring Venezuelan diesel and gasoline to cover its own internal demand. Ecuador’s growing energy ties with Venezuela have been applauded by important figures such as Luis Macas, long associated with the CONAIE.
The dilemma for Ecuador is that, while oil represents about a quarter of the country’s GDP, many disadvantaged communities have been unhappy with development. The north eastern section of Ecuador, the "Oriente," has long been the scene of serious social unrest. I know something about the social and environmental conflicts in the area, having written a couple of articles about the Huorani Indians for the Ecuadoran magazine 15 Dias and the Quito daily Hoy.
In 1992, having just completed a reporting internship at WBAI radio in New York, I headed to Quito. At that time, North American as well as Ecuadoran environmental groups were concerned about Maxus Corporation, a Texas-based energy company. The influential company had the support of the government, the press, and North American Protestant missionaries. The Huaorani had just traveled to Quito, where they had carried out a protest in front of Maxus headquarters.
The Indians demanded that Maxus halt its construction of a highway in block 16, which fell in their traditional homeland. I flew out to the Amazon and interviewed the Indians who were living in deplorable health and sanitary conditions. In my articles, I dissected Maxus’ unconvincing propaganda and warned about imminent environmental problems.
Venezuelan Involvement in the Ecuadoran Oil Industry?
I left Ecuador in late 1993, and not surprisingly the unrest continued. In 2002, the government declared a state of emergency following protests in Sucumbios and Orellana provinces. Protesters hit the streets, demanding greater investment in their communities. Indigenous peoples in the area had long felt that they had not adequately shared in the benefits of oil development. The military used teargas to break up protests which blocked oil wells.
In August 2005 the disturbances continued, with an oil strike hitting Orellana and Sucumbios. At that time, Chavez came to the aid of Ecuadoran president Alfredo Palacios by agreeing to send Venezuelan crude to the Andean nation. At the time, Chavez expressed sympathy with Ecuador "because we [Venezuela] have already passed through this type of thing with the oil sabotage [the oil lock out in 2002-3 encouraged by the Venezuelan opposition]."
Early this year, Petroecuador was forced to suspend exports when protesters, unhappy about longstanding environmental damage, demanded the departure of U.S. oil company Oxy and took over a pumping station vital to the functioning of a pipeline. Protesters, led by local politicians from the Amazon province of Napo, demanded that the government pay them funds for infrastructure projects in local communities.
In March, the government put three provinces under military control when workers initiated a strike for unpaid wages and improved working conditions. At one point, the government declared a state of emergency in Napo, when protesters demanded that the oil companies invest more of their profits in the area.
Guadalupe Llori, the prefect of Orellana, remarked "If we are treated like animals we are going to react like animals. We could join the workers and demand the government respect our rights." Petroecuador technicians and troops finally took control of oil facilities and cleared strikers from vital sites.
In May, Petroecuador took over oil wells belonging to Oxy’s block 15 oil concession; the Ecuadoran state wants the Venezuelan state company PdVSA to refine 75% of the 100,000 barrels per day within the old concession. According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, Ecuador is considering Venezuela as a possible partner in the fields formerly operated by Oxy.
Chavismo and Its Hemispheric Contradictions
If PdVSA had a presence in block 15, this would lead to a potential problem for Chavez. Having proclaimed its support for social and environmental justice, as well as indigenous rights, Venezuela would now be operating in an area long marked by social unrest and discrimination of indigenous peoples.
In the short term, Chavez may take some pride in the fact that Bush received another black eye in South America; what’s more Venezuela can now count on Correa’s support as well as the indigenous movement. But in the long term, Chavez could run the risk of alienating many of his supporters if Venezuela is perceived to be an accomplice in misguided development schemes.
In the coming years, will Chavez maintain his political support amongst disadvantaged peoples throughout the hemisphere, or will his popularity be tarnished by oil diplomacy? Up to now, Chavez has certainly used oil as an effective geopolitical instrument, but it may prove his Achilles Heel if he is not careful.
Initially, it seemed as if Chavez was perfectly poised to capitalize on a wave of anti-American discontent felt throughout the hemisphere. But then, a series of dramatic reversals cast doubt on Chavez's ambitions to become a truly hemispheric leader and a lightning rod against U.S. influence.
Over the last few months, I had begun to doubt whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would indeed have the kind of political staying power that I described in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press).
Initially, it seemed as if Chavez was perfectly poised to capitalize on a wave of anti-American discontent felt throughout the hemisphere. Throughout South America, Chavez exchanged oil for political influence with newly emerging leftist regimes in Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil; the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, a key Chavez ally, seemed to underscore Venezuela's rising influence.
But then, a series of dramatic reversals cast doubt on Chavez's ambitions to become a truly hemispheric leader and a lightning rod against U.S. influence.
Chavez's Reversals, from Peru to the United Nations
In Peru, Chavez openly endorsed the nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala in the country's presidential election. But Chavez's strategy backfired when Humala's opponent, Alan Garcia, charged that the Venezuelan leader was interfering in Peru's internal politics. Garcia successfully exploited the issue to his advantage and went on to beat Humala in last April's election.
In Mexico, pro-business PAN candidate Felipe Calderon ran a negative campaign against his leftist challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. In his TV ads, Calderon linked Obrador to Hugo Chavez, proclaiming "Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico." Though Lopez Obrador cried fraud in Mexico's July presidential election, the Electoral Tribunal ruled that Calderon had won the election and rejected Obrador's allegations. Calderon is set to assume office in December.
The next set back for Chavez came in Ecuador, where the Venezuelan leader's would be protégé, Rafael Correa, went down in defeat in the first round of the country's presidential election last month. A Correa win would have added another oil-rich country to Chavez's anti-American alliance.
Correa, a leftist economics professor, denied that Chavez had funded his campaign and the Venezuelan leader, chastened by his defeats in Mexico and Peru, was uncharacteristically quiet about the Ecuador election.
However, it's no secret that the two had a personal rapport. Correa in fact visited Chavez's home state of Barinas in August, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez's parents. Correa, who opposes an extension of the U.S. lease at an air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights, has nothing but contempt for George Bush.
When he was recently asked about Chavez's "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world."
But Correa was shocked by a strong last minute showing by his challenger, pro-U.S. banana magnate Alvaro Noboa. Like Lopez Obrador, Correa has cried foul and declared that his campaign might have fallen victim to electronic fraud on the country's voting machines. He will face off with Noboa in another runoff election in November.
Then there was Venezuela's failed bid to secure a non permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. When the United States proposed its own candidate, Guatemala, things turned ugly. Chavez characterized the race as a struggle against U.S. domination throughout Latin America; Venezuelan diplomats went so far as to describe Guatemala as a U.S. stooge.
But in the end, Venezuela failed to come up with the requisite votes. Chavez could take some satisfaction that Guatemala too failed to come up with the necessary votes at the United Nations, and had to withdraw in favor of Panama.
The reality, however, is that despite Chavez's frenetic shuttle diplomacy throughout Africa and calls for Third World solidarity, he could not muster more votes than a small Central American country with very little regional influence and an appalling human rights record.
It was hardly an impressive showing.
The Chavez-Ortega Alliance
Events in Nicaragua, however, suggest that it won't be so easy for the Bush administration to roll back Chavez's ambitions. It now seems as if the Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega will cruise to victory in the country's presidential election and avoid a run off. As of Monday night, preliminary results show Ortega with about 40 percent of the vote, more than enough to avoid a future runoff.
For the White House, it's a nightmare that officials had long sought to avoid.
Though Ortega, who was president from 1985 to 1990 during the U.S.-fueled Contra War, is a pale shadow of his former self, having jettisoned his leftist rhetoric and hostility towards his northern neighbor, nevertheless Washington must now recognize that it has patently failed to isolate Chavez diplomatically. Nicaragua now seems poised to join the wave of left leaning regimes throughout the hemisphere inspired by Chavez.
When Ortega traveled to Venezuela for a meeting with Chavez last year, the friendship between the two began to bear fruit. During the meeting at Miraflores, the presidential palace, Ortega remarked that Latin American unity was necessary to confront globalization. He added that Chavez's electoral victory convinced him that revolutionary change could be achieved through the ballot box. "I thought that they were going to overthrow Chavez," Ortega remarked, "and that he would meet the same fate as Salvador Allende."
Ortega later alarmed Washington by remarking that if he won the election he would make sure that Nicaragua would join ALBA, Chavez's Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas. Chavez's trading plan, which is designed to sideline traditional corporate interests and Bush's Free Trade Agreement of The Americas (FTAA), is based on barter agreements between Latin American countries. Recently, to the chagrin of U.S. policymakers, Bolivia joined Venezuela and Cuba in ALBA.
Chavez, Ortega and ALBA
"Without a doubt," Ortega declared during a Cuban summit meeting with Morales, Castro and Chavez, "we have to look towards the south, we have to look towards integration, and ALBA is an open door, it is Latin American and Caribbean integration."
Ortega later added that he opposed U.S.-backed trade deals. "Central America's trading future lies not with the U.S. but with Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina," he said.
Ortega, smarting from three successive electoral defeats after the fall of the Sandinistas from power, added that he was "convinced after 16 years of neo liberal policies in Nicaragua that the conditions are ripe for the Sandinista Front to retake power, now via the ballot box."
In the Plaza de La Revolucion in Havana, Chavez approached Ortega and remarked, "Daniel, we are inviting you next year to come here as the president of Nicaragua."
According to Ortega, Chavez followed up on his promising words by offering to help Nicaragua join in ALBA. Speaking before hundreds of workers in Managua, Ortega said that Chavez and the president of the Venezuelan Economic and Social Development Bank (known by its Spanish acronym Bandes) had pledged to help open a development bank in Nicaragua. "Venezuela is willing to provide support so that this bank will become a reality and campesinos will have credits and a secure market," Ortega told supporters. According to Ortega the Venezuelan aid formed part of ALBA.
Chavez, Ortega and CAFTA
In seeking to recruit Ortega for his ALBA scheme, Chavez found a willing ally in Ortega. Indeed, Nicaragua's experiment in "neo-liberal" economics since the fall of the Sandinistas in 1990 has not been a very happy one. Like Venezuela, which experienced political unrest as a result of neo liberal policies pushed by Washington, Nicaragua has been buffeted by "savage capitalism," as Ortega has put it.
Today, Nicaragua is a bleak place. Per capita income is a paltry $700 and more than 70% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Successive governments have failed to restore Managua from a 1972 earthquake. Within yards of the presidential palace lie slums and empty buildings; beggars and barefoot children splash around in the gutters of Managua instead of heading to class.
Like Chavez, Ortega has spent a lot of time over the past years criticizing U.S.-led free trade deals. For example, the Sandinista led the charge against CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Ortega pledged to pull Nicaragua out of CAFTA and "end savage capitalism when we win." CAFTA, Ortega argued, was an effort by the U.S. to exploit poor countries in a rush to the bottom and cheap labor.
"Bush is taking up CAFTA," Ortega remarked in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, "because it is his way of keeping Central America from looking south." Ortega furthermore suggested that Washington was seeking to splinter Nicaragua's solidarity with the Left in Latin America such as Chavez's regime.
CAFTA was pushed ruthlessly by U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick over the objections of labor, environmentalists and human rights groups [for more on Zoellick, see my profile of the diplomat in my book].
"CAFTA is the opportunity of a lifetime," Zoellick remarked in an address given at the Heritage Foundation. "If we retreat into isolationism, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chavez and others like them, leftist autocratswill advance."
Zoellick's efforts to link Ortega and Chavez in order to ram through CAFTA were echoed by paranoid, red baiting Republicans in the House and Senate. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe warned his fellow Senators: "These Communists, these enemies of the United States, Chavez, Ortega, and Castro, are all in opposition to CAFTA. If you want to be on their side, you would vote against CAFTA."
In the House, Republican Rep. Mike Kirk of Illinois took the fear mongering prize by arguing that Chavez was "Venezuela's Mussolini." Chavez, claimed Kirk, was purchasing weapons in order to fight a new war in Central America. "Let us enact a free trade agreement with Central America to lock in democratic growth and stability," Kirk exclaimed, "and let us make sure that President Hugo Chavez's Venezuelan agents find no fertile ground in America's back yard."
In the end CAFTA passed narrowly in Congress. In Nicaragua, CAFTA was opposed by the Sandinistas in the National Assembly as well as key figures in civil society, including the president of the country's largest agricultural organization, who warned that the agreement would give rise to greater poverty in the countryside.
According to experts, CAFTA stood to encourage the growth of more maquiladora assembly plants, but any positive benefit would be offset by the loss in farm jobs as a result of the influx of cheap U.S. agricultural goods. Despite domestic opposition, Nicaragua passed CAFTA in October 2005.
Efforts to Demonize Ortega and Chavez
Despite its CAFTA public relations victory, the Bush administration was clearly still worried and kept up the pressure on Ortega during the run up to the presidential election. Paul Trivelli, the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, warned that Ortega's victory would signify "the introduction of a Chavez model" in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile the conservative press flew into a tirade against Ortega, with the Washington Times remarking that "Ortega will take Nicaragua out of CAFTA and into Mr. Chavez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and almost synonymous with this is a move to nationalize industry, much like Evo Morales did in Bolivia."
The Washington Post was similarly hostile, remarking in an editorial that Ortega "is about to return to power and increase the alliance with non-democratic countries [such as] Venezuela." The Post, interestingly criticized the Bush administration for reacting too slow to the Chavez and Ortega threat.
On the pages of National Review, Otto Reich, a former State Department official who dealt with Venezuelan opposition conspirators in the run up to the coup against Chavez in 2002, remarked that "The emerging axis of subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela must be confronted before it can undermine democracy in Nicaragua."
As per the case in Peru, the Nicaraguan right sought to link its Sandinista opposition to Chavez in an effort to instill fear in voters. Presidential candidate Jose Rizo remarked that Chavez and Ortega were "a threat to regional and hemispheric stability," and claimed that the Venezuelan leader was financing Ortega's campaign [both Venezuela and Ortega deny the accusation]. "Ortega will become Chavez's lieutenant in Central America and the Caribbean in the same way that he represented the extinct and failed Soviet Bloc," Rizo added.
Ortega Unlikely to Radicalize
Unlike Peru however the opposition's strategy of trying to scare Nicaraguan voters proved unsuccessful and at long last Ortega has prevailed in his drive to reach the presidency. Despite the hyperbolic claims by the U.S. and conservative politicians in Nicaragua however, Ortega is hardly in a position to become Chavez's steward overnight. Unlike Venezuela, Nicaragua is poor and foreign investment and aid accounts for 35 percent of the budget. That money could disappear if Ortega started to radicalize the country and expropriate industry.
In an effort to appease jittery investors, Ortega recently signed a pro-business pact in which he pledged to promote the private sector. Though he has spoken about the need to renegotiate aspects of CAFTA, Ortega now says he will build on free trade agreements. Ortega will have to tread lightly: the U.S. is Nicaragua's largest trading partner and accounts for about one fifth of the country's imports and approximately a third of its exports. About 25 wholly or partially owned subsidiaries of U.S. corporations operate in Nicaragua.
With so much at stake, Ortega has predictably moderated his rhetoric by stating that he would work with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and Inter American Development Bank.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of former president Violeta Chamorro and editor of the weekly Confidencial newspaper, is not too concerned about a radical Ortega agenda. He argues that Ortega is a pragmatist and will try to appease the United States. Observers believe that the right wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (known by its Spanish acronym PLC), the main opposition to the Sandinistas, will hold onto its many seats in the National Assembly following this election, which would further complicate any radical agenda.
But, Chavez's Oil Diplomacy in Central America Could Be a Factor
Nevertheless, Chavez seems to be trying hard to bring Nicaragua into its political orbit. Chavez has enhanced his stature in South America by trading oil for other goods, and seems to be pursuing a similar strategy in Nicaragua. Venezuela has in fact already provided cheap fuel to Nicaragua through Sandinista mayors. Speaking on his television and radio program Alo, Presidente!, Chavez told Ortega that Nicaragua could pay for Venezuelan oil with meat, milk, cheese and other goods.
Ortega and Chavez have held personal discussions about setting up a mixed Venezuelan-Nicaraguan company that would import the cheap oil. Chavez is apparently willing to invest in Nicaragua to set up necessary oil infrastructure. Best of all, Chavez's offer could prove politically beneficial to Ortega since restive students have protested any move to raise transportation costs. Farmers meanwhile would not have to increase their production costs.
What does it all add up to? Despite some setbacks, Chavez stands to at least gain some diplomatic and political leverage in Central America. Ortega will be hampered in bringing about radical change, but will at least look upon Venezuela as an important regional ally and friend. Try as it might, the Bush administration has not been able to isolate Chavez. To the contrary, the U.S., through its efforts to demonize both Chavez and Ortega, has unwittingly brought them together.