All change in Venezuela's revolution

About the author

Ivan Briscoe is a fellow of the Conflict Research Unit, which is part of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. After working as a journalist and newspaper editor in Argentina, France and Spain for over a decade, he now specializes in the study of fragile states, the effects of inequality and the emergence of organized crime.

In a city full of flagrant contradictions, the walls of Caracas make an early and unsettling impression. Drivers on the highways of the richer suburbs peer through their tinted glass at an occasional graffiti-painted Si, a small relic of the passionately fought referendum of August 2004 when giant billboard posters screamed the same “Yes” to the accompaniment of a woman unbuttoning her jeans. Down in the poor areas, where the walls seem to seal off glacial flows of brick and tin tenements streaming from the hilltops, there is only one riposte, painted over and over again in red with a convulsive fury, covering miles of concrete. Here, “No” is the only option. “Death to the squalid ones…. Chávez is not surrendering.”

The ideal solution to the phenomenon of Hugo Chávez, one former president of Venezuela said before the latest referendum, would be for him to “die like a dog.” But as the shantytown walls foresaw, President Chávez remains unvanquished through a coup, two general strikes and eight different elections since his election in December 1998 – and he is in understandably scintillating form.

As Hugo Chávez plans to attend the fifth World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, openDemocracy publishes a variety of perspectives on this global gathering; don’t miss Ezeqiel Adamovsky’s “Beyond the WSF: the need for new institutions” (January 2005)

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In December 2004, finally sure of his domestic grip on power and his status as one of the world’s most powerful baiters of Washington, he returned to Caracas from a weeklong tour through the palaces of sympathetic leaders. There was a tumultuous reception in Madrid, where the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is markedly warmer towards Chávez than its conservative predecessor; a “human rights prize” from the hands of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; a heart-to-heart in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin; and the unveiling of a bust of free-loving Latin American independence leader Simon Bolívar in Tehran.

Adoration for Chávez has turned global. For all sorts of radical politicians and activists, this former military officer and leader of Venezuela’s 25 million people is the hero of an age that is marked to the north by a resurgent right. Since Chávez first won power in 1998 on a platform of redistribution and social justice, left-wing governments have been elected across Latin America – including that of President Luiz Inacio da Silva (Lula) in Brazil. Several of these governments, particularly Lula’s, have proved cautious and accommodating with the demands of high finance and the G8 bloc, disappointing many supporters in the process. Chávez, however, seems only to have got tougher.

On the day of his return from his world tour and with no notable jetlag, Chávez strides into an assembly of 400 left-leaning “intellectuals,” pounding the backs of the closest allies with mighty bearhugs and offering himself to every kiss. From his dais, he salutes the honoured guests gathered together from around the globe. The son of Cuba’s Fidel Castro is there, the image of his father (“there will be Fidel Castros for years to come” beams the president); Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader from 1980s Nicaragua; Algeria’s independence hero, Ahmed Ben Bella; Danny Glover, co-star of Lethal Weapon.

The audience in the vast theatre quietens. Outside, one by one and without liking it a bit, the private television channels pull from the air their scheduled soap-operas, cosmetic surgery commercials and live baseball coverage to make way for the broad shoulders and story-telling bonhomie of the president. He has never been brief and will not be today. “The best form of defence”, he begins, “is attack.”

Though the intellectuals present laugh and applaud, in the eyes of Chávez’s Venezuelan critics the next two hours form a sort of existential agony. Every word he says – whether it concerns the “defence of humanity”, his silly mishaps at international summits, his love for pear juice or the chorus of a favourite popular song – reeks to them of lies, communism and above all, vulgarity. “I saw Chávez’s vice-president visiting a beer factory”, one incandescent opposition activist tells me. “He took a sip and then he burped, live on television. It was disgraceful. Where else in the world would you see a thing like that?”

“It’s rather like having your gardener as president,” quips Tomás Suárez, a pro-government academic from Universidad de los Andes. But the “squalid ones” of the opposition, a term they now use about themselves with a rueful twist of the lip, are having to bite their tongues – at least in public. Once convinced of eventual victory over Chávez, the opposition movement has simply disintegrated since losing the August 2004 referendum by a margin of 17% to the pro-government “no” camp; the recent occupation of the 13,000-hectare Vestey cattle estate has shown that an emboldened government is on the attack and pursing that rarest of grails, a post-cold war social revolution.

A concrete change

The most tangible proof that some sort of revolution is underway can currently be found in the capital’s high-rise buildings. Erected in the 1960s and 1970s with the aid of oil riches and cheap workers flocking from the countryside – who went on to build their shanty towns in the surrounding cerros (hillsides) by night – the concrete sentries of central Caracas have testified to many things: money laundering, megalomania, the draw of Americana, and above all else, the power and wealth of one single firm.

That first business of Venezuela is PDVSA, the state oil company, responsible for 50% of total government revenue, and close to 80% of the country’s export earnings. Once the hub for a paradise of heavily subsidized corporations run by friends of the powerful, it was, unsurprisingly, also a private club for Venezuela’s untouchable, white-skinned elite: according to Henry Maneiro, editor of the political magazine Exxito, “the sort of place you’d find a job for a stupid brother or a dippy daughter”. And although it still pumps indispensable petrodollars into Chávez’s coffers, its glorious pomp is over. Its four buildings in Caracas have been cut to just one; two of them are now overflowing with radical students from the slums. They have become “Bolivarian” universities.

The same changing of hands has occurred across the city centre: shops at street level are obscured behind an unbroken procession of plastic-canopied stalls, blaring salsa and selling cheap copies of every known product, whilst up above, insurance offices and banks have made way for the public-sector phalanx. From the 21st floor of what was once the headquarters of a major bank, Yadira Córdova, a qualified dentist and now minister of science, is surrounded by a breathtaking vista of Caracas, its towers and slums, so vast and commanding from street level, wreathed by the trails of vapour that have parted from the cloud forest rising steeply to the north.

Learning to be Venezuelans?

The bank in question, along with around 18,000 PDVSA executives and thousands of smaller companies, marched with insufferable certitude to its own annihilation. The general strikes of December 2002 and January 2003 had sought to unseat Chávez, but resulted only in bankruptcies and mass emigration by the country’s middle class. As with many other corporate headquarters, the dreamlike views and luxurious leather fittings were sold cut-price to the government. The language of levelling settled in. “This has been a rentier economy for decades, and production has had no role to play. The only option was to consume”, explains Córdova, whose ministry is promoting basic farming techniques to reduce the 80% of food that is currently imported. “Now we are putting knowledge in the hands of the people.”

Out of the sarcophagus

Identical sentiments are expressed by every official, commander and activist involved in what has become known simply as el proceso – the process. If guiding principles are needed, then Venezuela’s constitution, drafted under Chávez and approved at the ballot box in 1999, is brandished; the president carries it always in his breast pocket. Everything that Latin America’s post-colonial plantation societies most deeply require is given its due: equity, justice, democracy, participation, employment. Over and above every goal, meanwhile, looms the figure of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), disinterred from his golden sarcophagus in the pantheon of Caracas to give an identity to Chávez’s national shakedown.

Bolívar’s deeds as the liberator of “Gran Colombia” from imperial rule are among the great feats of military history, not least the multiple, suicidal crossings of the Andes’ bleakest passes so as to surprise the Spanish rearguards. Born in Caracas in 1783, he was an aristocrat, but with hints of black parentage in his features; he was a womaniser, a leader by example, an obsessive flosser of his teeth, and a man of manic self-belief. This is all the stuff of legend and anecdote. Locating a stable ideology behind it all, however, is a much more difficult task.

There is no doubt that Bolívar’s sympathies went out to the poor, who after all made up the backbone of his forces – particularly the terrifying semi-clad horsemen of the plains, the llaneros, whose ability to survive on raw beef salted by horse’s sweat placed them in good stead for Bolívar’s lunatic campaigns. Toward the end of his life, as Gran Colombia was split into three, he also reserved a fierce hate for the home-grown Latin elites that were intent on taking the place of the Spanish while leaving the strata of society untouched. But this does not mean that Bolívar was an egalitarian, or even a democrat: “our weak citizens will have to strengthen their spirits greatly before they can take the salutary nourishment of liberty”, he told one international gathering in 1818. “It would be better for South America to adopt the Koran than the form of government of the United States, even though it be the best in the world” (see Robert Harvey, Liberators).

In essence, Bolívar believed in practical government, in rule that could transform the “infant” serfs and vassals of Spanish imperial rule – easily manipulated and led into conflict, particularly in light of the mixture of white, black and indigenous peoples – into free-thinking citizens, even if the cost was a brief period of despotism. “Do not adopt the best system of government, but the one most likely to succeed”, he wrote in his famous Letter from Jamaica: enigmatic words that have inspired scores of Latin dictators.

"I grew up in the countryside, and I had no chance to learn"

The missions for the poor

Just under 200 years later, the same tensions between ideological ends and pragmatic means are being played out all over again in Bolívar’s name. Knowing that he was to face a critical referendum on his rule in 2004, Chávez took the advice of Fidel Castro (the elder). Having assumed total control over PDVSA after the general strikes, the president opted to use its bonanza oil revenues to make good on his promises to his most loyal supporters: $3.5 billion was poured into ten “missions,” providing amongst other things healthcare, literacy classes for over a million people, cheap food, jobs and land. The government’s new office blocks were to channel all their efforts to the 70% of the population estimated to live below the poverty line.

The gratitude of those who have benefited is undeniable. “I’ve never had an opportunity like this. I grew up in the countryside, and I had no chance to learn”, explains Eduardo Correa, a 38-year-old immigrant from Colombia who now attends literacy classes in Parroquia Sucre, one of Caracas’ vast fusions of housing estates and shantytowns, from which thousands marched in Chávez’s defence after the April 2002 coup. As in most poor urban areas, the turf here is divided between drug lords and the Bolivarian popular movement: a recipe for corruption, pandemic urban violence, selective police assassinations (an extraordinary 2,300 were killed across Venezuela for “resisting arrest” in 2003), and ever-rising rates of homicide. These are not places you would choose freely to live in.

Like all the others in his class of twenty-five, Eduardo is destitute. He explains in a hurried mumble that he lives in a “cellar” with his wife and five children; his work consists of “taking things from one place to another”. But every day at 5pm, he comes to his class at the Bolivarian school – a hive of adult classes, free-roaming children and a headmistress on the verge of nervous collapse – and strives to copy down the cursive script. Beside him sits fellow-student Naida Villalba, impeccably turned out in a blouse and floral alice band, and passionate in her support for the president. “I’ve seen nothing but good from this government”, she explains. Naida, also aged 38, explains that she has worked since 15 making shoes and cleaning houses, but has had to stop so she can look after her leprosy-stricken mother.

Ivan Briscoe’s acute analyses regularly feature on openDemocracy:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (April 2003) "Beyond the zero sum: from Chavez to Lula" (July 2003)

"A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida" (March 2004)

“Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco” (May 2004)

“The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referendum” (August 2004)

"Taking liberties – a review of Naomi Klein’s The Take" (November 2004)

If these articles offer you a valuable insight into Latin American and European politics, please consider subscribing to openDemocracy for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy–to–read PDFs of all our material.

Every visit to a mission in any part of the country uncovers the same astonished reactions. In Mérida, a beautiful hillside colonial city afflicted by a gridlock of gas-guzzling saloon cars (petrol costs five cents a litre in Venezuela), I meet a line of wizened farm workers and elderly women waiting for free eye checks. “Now everyone has glasses and medicine”, explains Benito Acosta, aged 68, who has spent the last ten years unable to see clearly and too poor to pay for a visit to an optician. The Cuban doctor who attends them, however, is not so effusive. I ask him for an interview. “Go and see the military commander of the mission”, is his brusque response, and the clinic door is promptly closed.

“The Cubans are everywhere”: the remark, made in jest, can be heard in every government ministry. But there is no doubt that the Cuban presence – 18,000 doctors, thousands of literacy and basic education teachers and uncounted political advisers – constitutes one of the most extraordinary peacetime relief efforts ever deployed in Latin America.

For Chávez, this humanitarian force, paid for by cheap oil exports to Cuba, has sealed the “brotherhood” of two nations. For his opponents, it is the incarnation of everything they fear the most: demagoguery, populism and creeping communism. “How can the people who get something from these missions not vote for him?” asks William Dávila, a former senator and governor of Mérida for the virtually defunct Acción Democrática party, and a stalwart of the opposition movement.

“But the truth is that we are now seeing President Chávez put his legislative barriers into place. We will see a more autocratic style of regime – not Marxist, but militarist. We are now living through a version of fascism.”

Fearing the worst

Now that its electoral power has been reconfirmed, sinister readings of the Chávez regime scream from every Venezuelan newspaper – barring the few state-run tabloids that are clamouring instead for the award of a Nobel peace prize. A stream of recent legislation – cracking down on spontaneous protests, hiking up punishment for terrorist crimes and imposing a new and unpredictable system of control over private media – provide more than enough fuel for the scare of “legal tyranny.” All that is not clearly identified with the government or the Bolivarian “people” is feeling the heat of distrust. “We have a lot of problems getting information from the government”, says Carlos Correa from the respected human-rights group Programa Venezolano de Educacion-Accion en Derechos Humanos (Provea). “A lot of the time the perception of us is as an enemy, as (people) who want to do damage.”

Deprived of their marches and their figureheads, the opponents of the regime agonise in private. Amanda, an employee for the government statistics agency, takes me to one side after an official programme launch to tell me that the names of all those who signed the petition in 2003 for a referendum on Chávez have been computerised to form a quick, accessible blacklist, 4-million strong. Incompetent young loyalists under Cuban watch have been promoted, she says. The only remedy is to pretend one is with el proceso. “It has never been as bad as it is now”, she insists.

Parcelled up into enclosures of rich and poor, baseball and soup kitchen, the visions of what Chávez signifies transform at a schizoid pace. It is not difficult to wake up in Venezuela and see only military paraphernalia and the threat of militant poverty: Chávez becomes once again the paratrooper and coup leader of 1992, intent on governing via television dialogue with the faithful. His strict control over currency exchange reeks of the Soviet bloc. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until the state food chain, Mercal, becomes the only food distributor, and everyone is prescribed those heinous monthly Cuban rations: adulterated minced meat, soggy pasta and loads of rice.

But the flickering from a “yes” to a “no” can come just as quickly. Though disparaged by the middle classes, that same state chain is now selling to 9 million needy people without a ration system in sight. Currency controls were imposed straight after the general strike, for the simple reason that capital flight is an excellent way to cripple a state (witness Argentina 2001). “Chávez was created by his own opponents”, argues Henry Maneiro. “He was created by the corrupt, the inefficient and the indolent.”

In memory of one of those killed in the April 2002 coup

In the style of a true Bolivarian strategist, Chávez has chosen political success over perfect government. This is clear in recent legislation that targets all those who sought to oust him. And though the finest liberal values may be expounded in newspaper attacks upon his government, the cynicism and self-interest of those who led the opposition, including the April 2002 coup and the general strikes, are just too palpable to ignore.

Private media coverage of the coup, in which nineteen people were killed by sniper fire, was a travesty from start to finish: images relayed around the world of Chávistas firing their guns amid the carnage failed to show that they were in fact being shot at from the rooftops, and were merely acting in panic-stricken self-defence. The one person investigating these events, including the wider seizure of power and the pen-stroke abolition of the constitution – the state prosecutor Danilo Anderson – was blown to pieces by an explosive attached to his car in November 2004.

Today, the more lucid leaders of the opposition are starting to realise that they have made major miscalculations, and that the two-party system which ruled Venezuela for forty years until Chávez came along has lost its credibility for good. “We’re paying for our mistakes”, admits ex-senator Dávila.

“We had strikes and marches galore, but there was no organised plan, no idea of what we would do with the oil. And the president very skilfully exploited what was said in our programme, arguing that we wanted to sell off PDVSA and kill off the social programmes. The sensation was that we would give it all over to the oligarchy.”

Living on the polar extremes

Yet clinging to either of the two sides in Venezuela – vulgar or squalid, layabout or oligarch – only serves to obscure the true dynamic of what is now underway. Just as in Cuba after 1959, the promised revolution has been shaped as much by its enemies as by its exponents: “the corrupt, the inefficient and the indolent” have given Chávez his war-cry, his votes and his principal objectives. Now that his programme is back on track after three years of uninterrupted conflict, he will depend on his enemies for his support; they will be his ammunition in the next election in 2006, or when oil falls in price. Their failures will be his gains. The prospect of their return will be the bedrock of his appeal.

A similar story can be traced in Venezuelan foreign policy. Thickening evidence of United States involvement in the 2002 coup – currently being uncovered by investigative lawyer Eva Golinger – has converted Chávez’s initial indifference to the north into a heroic stand against the “empire”. Nowadays, a day does not pass without some rhetorical flourish from either side, of which the most laconic and abrasive was an off-the-record reaction from a White House official to news that Chávez was acquiring some MiG fighter jets: “we will shoot them down”. Speculation abounds, meanwhile, that some low-level intelligence agents might even try to spring another subversive surprise, if they have not done so already.

In return, Chávez has become a useful guest of honour for non-aligned governments, and something of a totem across Latin America. Even as the military in Washington fret over Latin American “radical populism”, Chávez appears in no hurry to dispel their concerns; days after Bush’s election victory he was back in Havana for a parlay with Castro, who himself knows a thing or two about using US intimidation to justify autocratic rule.

An end to contempt?

Yet this instinct for polarisation and antagonism on both sides obscures a deeper and more macabre reality – one that goes to the very essence of Latin America’s social quandary. Often in Venezuela I asked the more rabid members of the opposition why it is that the revenues of a national resource, which produce one of Latin America’s highest per capita incomes, were allowed to generate such dire inequalities. The question needs to be repeated several times before an answer eventually spills out: “because the poor aren’t civilised”, one highly educated architect tells me. “They don’t know what to do when they’re given something. When flats were built for them with bathrooms, they just sold all the fittings.”

The poor are given housing and they sell the taps, dig up the parquet to use for fuel, wreck the garbage chute… The diffuse mental toxins from these anecdotes, which are heard across the continent and are almost all myths, can claim some responsibility for the two biggest disasters in the region in 2004, a supermarket fire in Paraguay (464 killed) and a nightclub fire in Buenos Aires, Argentina (175 killed). In Asunción, the doors were closed once the blaze began to stop shoppers looting; in Buenos Aires, the emergency exits were chained to stop penniless teenagers from getting into a rock concert for free.

It seems extraordinary and frankly distressing that in a continent of such great personal warmth and kindness, this class contempt can seethe on. Nominally, of course, Chávez is the seer who will change all that. But in spite of all the requisitioned buildings, the billions of bolivar spent and the television channels in tow, his revolution often appears like surface-scratching on a cast-iron social divide: the roadside billboards still glow with lipsticked white faces, the shopping malls are overflowing, and some 300,000 Venezuelans are recorded to have visited Miami-Dade county in 2004 on the crest of 18% economic growth. Yet United Nations statistics indicate that since Chávez came to power, poverty levels have not altered.

“A lot of people say that every Venezuelan has in his or her soul an oil profiteer waiting to get out”, observes Jorge Dávila, a renowned expert in systems theory from Universidad de los Andes.

“Be that as it may, the deepest issue of concern is that of institutions, which Venezuela has totally failed to build. A mission is not part of the institutions we have inherited, but what will be built and consolidated out of them?”
The question he raises is critical. At present, no less than 25,000 poor people are on waiting lists to be flown to Cuba for operations, yet public health care within Venezuela remains abject (an X-ray costs $50). This surgical airlift, rather like Evita Perón’s largesse with children’s toys in 1940s Argentina, appears both an act of great generosity and a stopgap that fails to make the slightest long-term difference.

Over in the five-starred hotel colony of Caracas, meanwhile, the zealous staff and cocktail-dressed escort girls mix with a population of foreign business people who seem not to have heard the terrifying news of the Bolivarian revolution. The hotels are packed, for PDVSA and the government need foreign contractors more than ever, while international business cannot fail to be interested in a land that has the largest oil reserves in the western hemisphere, and whose government has scheduled gigantic infrastructure spending. “With all the oil money, this is a great time to be in Venezuela”, one Spanish company representative confides. He knows the president personally, having successfully pitched an economic development project that brought tears to Chávez’s eyes. “You have to present ideas with the heart on the outside. That’s the way to succeed.” Even the old business elites, the Spaniard adds, are reinventing themselves and their vital organs for the new era.

In spite of all Hugo Chávez’s charisma and dynamism, the old structures of Venezuelan society appear to remain intact, or are at least rebuilding. This poses critical questions for his movement and the left in Latin America: if major, lasting change is possible, including the construction of decent public institutions and a proper welfare state, then at some stage the partisan, ad hoc and propagandistic approach favoured until now by the president, and provoked by the venom of the opposition, will have to be replaced by a more rigorous reformism.

The rhetoric of polarisation – which inevitably defers to accepted stereotypes of rich and poor, landed and landless, master and slave – appears in this respect only to encourage the reproduction of old class divisions and norms, though perhaps with new faces at the top of the pyramid. Much as he has disappointed his support base, Lula’s gradualist government in some ways seems better suited to an eventual transformation of an entire society and its deep values than Chávez’s brisk revolution.

Yet perhaps this dilemma is the core of a Bolivarian’s inheritance. Having liberated half a continent, the haggard and exhausted commander finally understood that his exhilarating visions of Gran Colombia were unattainable. In a famous letter penned in 1830, he wrote:

“he who serves a revolution ploughs the sea…. The only thing we can do in America is emigrate…. Devoured as we are by every kind of crime and annihilated by ferocity, Europeans will not go to the trouble of conquering us.”
There can be no doubt that Hugo Chávez knows this letter, and could recite it by heart; perhaps he is also aware that a belated cure for Simón Bolívar’s deathbed distress is not to be won by staying forever in the band of the ferocious.