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Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula

Ivan Briscoe
29 July 2003

If the nature of a revolution can be established by the manner of its dress, then the one led by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela must rate as one of history’s more ambiguous upheavals. Chávez has had three standard outfits during his five-year presidency – baseball kit, military fatigues, Italian suit and silk tie – and he has generated an ideological froth to match. On returning from the Middle East, he proclaimed that his country should turn to Islam; when back from Cuba, his preferences turned to the rigours of communism. Like a compass surrounded by attractions, his heroes and sacred texts pull the president in as many different directions as there are forms of punishing the rich.

“Where is this revolution going?” Chávez asked himself in an interview with Le Monde Diplomatique at the end of 2001, on the eve of the year that would see him ousted, reinstated, and confronted by a two-month general strike. “Well, like every revolution it’s going towards the transformation of political, social, economic and also moral structures.” For those wanting more specifics, he highlighted a recent protest by employers: “that was the first lockout [of employers] in Venezuelan history. Now, that shows we’re going in the right direction.”

The travails of heroism

Amid the global roster of bland, business-courting political leaders, such flagrantly provocative statements are the sort to have won Chávez a following on the international left. Selective glimpses at the recent history of his country would also suggest that the former paratrooper is rightfully seeking justice in a land of outrageous inequality.

Consider, for example, the cabal which toppled him for two days in April 2002. One meeting just hours before the coup was held in the offices of the Venevisión television station, and featured Latin American media tycoon Gustavo Cisneros, employers’ federation chief Pedro Carmona, and hereditary oil magnates. Carmona then journeyed to the army headquarters, seized power, annulled the constitution, and suspended all elected officials – all to a sigh of approval from the White House.

The romantic vision of Chávez would then no doubt proceed to tell of the tens of thousands of incensed shanty-town dwellers who descended on the capital, at great risk to themselves. “The top dogs are coming back, the old bunch of thieves,” they shouted; and Chávez, aided by a bout of infighting in the military, reassumed a mandate to last until 2006.

Any reasonable judgment, based on the rhetoric and the personalities, would indeed opt for the corner of the people’s hero. But Venezuela is ample proof that the course of revolutionary government does not always follow its precepts, and can well betray them.

Does it really serve the interests of the poor to enrage the middle and upper classes with forty-nine laws in the space of a year (2001), including ones designed to hand out land, stiffen “Bolivarian” school education and “democratise capital” in the banking sector, while also offending the mighty in Washington by likening the attack on Afghanistan to terrorism?

On paper it may, but in the context of Venezuela, these were essential precursors to a year of civil breakdown, economic collapse and huge capital flight. The bombast of Hugo Chávez in the face of what he termed a “rancid oligarchy” did not so much empower the underprivileged as bring to the surface Venezuela’s latent class war. The current cost is a decline of 29% in GDP in the first three months of 2003, the bankruptcy of 15% of businesses, interest rates in the region of 50%, and unprecedented levels of civil paranoia and crime.

Chavez may try as hard as he can to shift all the blame for these figures onto the shoulders of the “squalid” overlords, who in his eyes spent the 1970s sampling French cheese and Scotch whisky, but he is also responsible for committing the cardinal Latin America error of ignoring the economic balance of power.

The same occurred to Alan García’s Aprista government in Peru during the second half of the 1980s. This pledged to pay in debt servicing no more than 10% of the value of its exports, only to find hyperinflation and the flowering of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla insurgency hastening its downfall.

Fidel Castro’s Cuba, of course, is the epitome of beneficial action for the poor gone wrong. At present, some 700,000 Cubans out of a population of 11 million have been to university, only to graduate before a vista of minimal employment and enrichment. Venezuela, in Chavez’s Bolivarian imprint of revolutionary associations, a schooling boom and an intense dislike for business, is heading in precisely the same direction, with one principle consolation: while Cuba exports tobacco and sugar, Venezuela deals in oil.

Venezuela: class war, sick society

Yet seen through the prism of Venezuelan society, the reading of Hugo Chávez as self-destructive philanthropist is far too contrived. Such is the polarisation of opinion around Venezuela that blame for the country’s economic and civil implosion is attributed wholly either to Chávez or to the oligarchy (which, as if to emphasise the country’s singularity, includes the trade union movement). This marks a social divide that is astonishing in its production of blinkered hatred.

The seam that has always run through Venezuela – separating anyone with formal employment from the 60-70% of the population clinging to semi-urban hillsides and scraping by – has now become an abyss, across which empathy and understanding rarely travel.

Plead for neutrality, and you are sure to be hounded: a television reporter for one of the five private television stations, all of which openly despise Chávez, revealed that her efforts to give objective coverage of a street fight received short shrift from the producer. “Go on, say it was the chavistas who attacked with stones. Say it, or you’re fired.” The prospect of a referendum on the president’s rule, which is constitutionally permitted from 19 August onwards, is now the principal hope for the opposition, and will doubtless renew the bitter political contest.

Thus, as much as the chavistas may fume and lambast their enemies, the alternative they represent is no more enlightened or accommodating. “I had a gold mine with 250 employees and we managed to extract 1,300 kilograms of gold,” recalls Héctor Mezones, who recently fled to Madrid to set up an exclusive restaurant. “But Chávez ordered a revision of the concessions, and that halted all activity. I wasn’t going to stay around to see how we were going to be ruined in a society where the proletariat is happy with having bread to eat, but doesn’t realise it has lived through a forty-year educational and cultural regression.”

In these circumstances, which resemble the racially-tinged class cleavages of Allende’s Chile or Central America in the 1980s, Chávez’s haranguing and occasional persecution of the television bosses, the oil executives and his political opponents is understandable, if not laudable or wise. Should anyone question his mission, the president can easily point to his election in 1998 with 56% of the vote, and his success in no less than four referenda that followed to ratify a new constitution. These events together signalled fundamental landslide reactions to an unsustainable system of government and distribution of the social spoils. The medicine for such a sickened society was always going to be painful.

Forty years for the locust

From the Punto Fijo pact of 1958 which opened the way to a new constitution, to Hugo Chávez’s victory forty years later, Venezuela appeared to the outsider to be a relatively rich, stable two-party democracy. This appearance, however, shrouded a Hispanic hacienda tradition which treated the state as private property, accentuated by an oil boom fuelling over half the government’s revenues without any contribution from the public.

Vast quantities of money were wasted, crony-run monopolies multiplied (in beer and canned food, for example), and the poor who flocked to the city fringes received just enough through the circuits of patronage to sustain them, without ever having a larger claim over the dollars that magically filled state coffers. This was a society shorn of democratic entitlement and responsibility, hinging on elections yet without a shared public life.

Inevitably, it collapsed. In February 1989, following a steep decline in the world price of oil, President Carlos Andrés Pérez (prompted by the IMF) announced a 30% increase in bus prices: the poor were to pay for the absence of oil riches. Over the days of rioting, looting and police repression that followed, some 400 people were killed, constituting the bloodiest uprising in recent South American history. In February 1992, Hugo Chávez, a paratrooper and thereby a member of the sole institution that was open to all sectors of Venezuelan society, mounted his one and only coup. It failed; he nevertheless became a national hero.

For those seeking vindication of Chávez’s regime, there is no better reference: while the so-called “Caracazo” riots illustrated the absolute exclusion of the marginalised poor from Venezuelan political life (their only options were violent), Chávez seemingly represents an effort to bind these people to the system, to channel their legitimate grievances.

There is certainly evidence to support the claim. His Bolivarian circles and creation of local councils, as Dan Storey discusses in openDemocracy, appear to have inserted political practice into the heart of previously anarchic and combustible communities. He is, evidently, the president of the poor.

Populism or patience?

Yet placed against Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil, or even Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, the demagogic populism, the buffoonery and love of outrage take much of the shine off Chávez. He is, in truth, a traditional Latin American populist, a man who has violent fringes, as shown by bombs in embassies, television stations and even the Organisation of American States (OAS) offices; peculiar allies, including China, Qatar and Saddam Hussein; and an interminable Sunday evening television show, Aló Presidente, a That’s Life spin-off where people’s problems are solved and the president vents his spleen.

All government flows through him, a fact he excuses by arguing that his will and the real interests of the Venezuelan nation are one and the same passion, born from his 1992 coup: “the people even invented a prayer: ‘Our Chávez who art in prison, hallowed be thy name.’ How do you fight that? It’s messianic, yes. But not because I pushed for it.”

Not unlike those shantytown rebels in 1989 who stole the best whisky and champagne from the boutiques of Caracas, Chávez seems to have partaken too much of the political culture that preceded him. While the international banks speak of “second-generation” institutional reforms in the continent, Chávez is the relic who goes to a EU conference in Spain and berates the massacres of the conquistadors.

Lula, by contrast, comes from a background even more deprived than that of Chavez, yet assiduously courts foreign capital and manages the world stage with ease. He is just as determined to bring the poor into the social mainstream, but wishes it to happen through the rule of law, business creation, and some variant of European consumer capitalism. The terrific austerity now being imposed in Brazil is the exertion to be made before the “orchestra” is tuned up, and in his words, “the symphony can begin.”

The comparison between Lula and Chávez does not flatter the Venezuelan leader – though the latter would certainly protest, with some justice, that civil society is much more mature in Brazil, and its elites far more perceptive. Indeed, Lula himself has been inclined to indulge Chavez rather than rebuke him, and (as well as welcoming the Cuban leader to Brazil) has turned an approving eye to the intensifying mutual aid between Fidel Castro and Venezuela – the sugar factories, health services and university places are contributed by Cuba, the oil by Venezuela.

Both within Brazil and in forays to the richer nations, Lula has never failed to listen to the bankers and portray his policies in terms of the future profitability of business. In a Latin American perspective, however, the arrival in power of the Workers’ Party leader is also part of a continental shift in which a certain space for repositioning is perceptible.

Washington’s hawkish US assistant secretary of state Otto Reich, who played some part in the April 2002 coup against Chávez, is no more. Chile and Mexico successfully resisted US pressure for a second Iraq resolution in the UN Security Council. And the renegade revolutionaries from Cuba and Venezuela, their economies in tatters, are once again on the guest list for major functions across the continent, which the two men enjoy enormously.

One simple reason to explain Chavez’s embrace of the revolutionary left is that semi-tropical export economies tend to present a highly-circumscribed choice of leader: as one impoverished Venezuelan put it to a visiting reporter, “he’s an idiot, but he’s our idiot.”

Another, more significant consideration is that both Chávez and Castro lie within the political spectrum of the fight for equity in hostile surroundings. They stand at the destructive extreme of levelling politics, yet Lula must be aware that the pole they represent is a useful and persuasive menace in his own coming battles with business, land and financial elites.

Many of the goals espoused by the three leaders are after all similar. Where they differ is over the extent to which historical conditions and ideological dogma have driven each to see different group interests as essentially incompatible – and society as a zero-sum contest between rich and poor. The hold of an inclusive vision, which argues for mutual benefits between classes and ethnicities, has always been tenuous on the continent: the more defective the underlying political and social settlement, the more likely that economic orthodoxy and the democratic rule-book will be flouted.

 

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