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.
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.
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.