By Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to The Nation and a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism. His book “Pinochet and Me,” a memoir of his days as translator for Chilean President Salvador Allende, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
Is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, leader of his “Bolivarian Revolution,” an authentic liberator whose program of “distributive social justice” can effectively blend socialism and democracy and uplift the poor? Or is he, as his enemies (including the Bush administration) allege, just another anti-democratic populist demagogue, a human rights violator obsessed with personal power? The answers are complicated and nuanced and probably satisfy nobody.
Those questions, at least, were certainly on vivid display when the nearly three dozen nations of the Americas met in Argentina in November at their latest hemispheric summit. All of a sudden, it seemed like déja vu all over again. Here we were, back to the chilly days of the Cold War, with Uncle Sam facing off against a challenging and obstreperous leftist—a self-proclaimed socialist, no less—claiming to speak on behalf of his overshadowed and impoverished continent and enthusiastically thumbing his nose at Yankee imperialism.
The assembled press had only one story in mind: just how big a confrontation would be produced between George W. Bush and twice- (some would say thrice-) elected Hugo Chavez. After a half-decade of unremitting hostility between Washington and Caracas, the dramatic stage had been more than set.
Indeed, the U.S. enmity toward Chavez even transcended the staunch partisan lines that have marked the Bush era. During his 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry briefly made the Venezuelan leader an issue, calling him a supporter of “narco-terrorists” and “detrimental to our interests.”
This past August, televangelist and conservative political activist Pat Robertson openly called for the assassination of Chavez. “If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him,” Robertson said, “I think we really ought to go ahead and do it.”
Most recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called Chavez’s friendship with Fidel Castro’s Cuba a “menace” to the region—the sort of language that gives any Third World leader contemplating American military power some restless nights. And in Venezuela’s case there is this added factor: The U.S. receives a full sixth of its oil imports from the South American country, making it economically strategic. (Some 13,000 Citgo gas stations in the U.S. are a direct arm of Venezuela’s state-run oil company.)
Washington’s threats were so ominous, by Chavez’s interpretation, that weeks before the Argentine summit he said he had been forced to cancel numerous public appearances to guarantee his safety. He also called for the creation of a civilian militia that would force any invading American troops to “bite the dust.” And he warned that if the Americans invade, “you can forget the Venezuelan oil.”
Chavez then escalated the rhetorical fire, branding the Bush White House “a terrorist administration” and calling the U.S. president no less than a “murderer.”
Shattering the “Washington Consensus”
Those seeking the standoff at the Summit of the Americas were not disappointed. Though personal fireworks between Bush and Chavez were avoided, the policy clash was thunderous. The five biggest economic powers in Latin America, led in good part by Chavez, handed the Bush administration a thudding defeat, turning thumbs down on the U.S. blueprint for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Upon conclusion of the summit, with the American diplomatic push a smoking train wreck, Chavez was jubilant: “The great loser today was George W. Bush. The man went away wounded. You could see defeat on his face.” Chavez said he felt “the taste of victory” and that the FTAA had been “buried.” Chavez urged the other Latin American presidents to join the fight against the FTAA.
Particularly worrisome to the conservative Bush administration was that Chavez was only the most jagged edge of a mounting trend of left-of-center leaders coming to power in Latin America: President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva in Brazil, President Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and President Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay. A moderate socialist-led coalition was also in power in Chile. And a more radical movement was gaining popularity in Bolivia and its leader, Evo Morales, was increasingly considered a presidential contender.
To the conservatives who dominate the Bush policy apparatus, this was a new “Red Dawn” in the making. A continent which had been all but abandoned by the administration was now being refocused through a resurrected Cold War optic. And the cross hairs were on Chavez, who—to many—was the New Castro: a radical, demagogic dictator-in-the-making intent on sabotaging democracy, freedom and American interests.
But to others on the continent and beyond, Chavez was a bracing and bold alternative to the packet of United States-backed policies that had come to be known as the Washington Consensus: free enterprise, free trade, a rollback of the state and social services, a sort of trickle-down economics for export. To his admirers and supporters, Chavez was a leader who had the courage to stand up to the United States. He openly denounced American-backed policies that had failed to alleviate the injustices lacerating Latin America, and he implemented tangible alternative policies that were visibly aiding the poor and the forgotten.
All of this leaves outside observers to ask which version of events is true, or at least closer to the truth.
Let’s do some digging:
Continued: The Making of a Radical
The Making of a Radical
Born to a dirt-poor family of teachers in 1954, Chavez enlisted at 17 as a “lifer” in the Venezuelan army. Educating himself while in the military, he soon developed a nationalist and vaguely leftist doctrine of “Bolivarianism,” inspired by the 18th century liberator who cherished the ideals of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution and who dreamed of, and fought for, a unified Latin America.
Chavez’s political views found some resonance in the ranks; not an oddity in numerous Latin American countries where, for better and usually for worse, the officer corps takes a strong interest in politics. In both Bolivia and Peru, for example, there had been earlier left-of-center movements resentful of American domination of the continent.
The historic opening for Chavez came in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when the country, despite its vast oil reserves, was suffering from economic decline and disillusionment with rampant political corruption under the U.S.-backed regime of President Carlos Andres Perez was reaching a boiling point. Some two-thirds of Venezuelans were eking out an existence on less than $2 a day. In 1989, a violent social explosion known as the Caracazo shook the nation. A veritable poor people’s uprising, it was sparked by economic austerity measures imposed by President Perez. Though the rebellion was crushed, taking hundreds—some say thousands—of lives, many Venezuelan soldiers refused to open fire on their countrymen.
The Caracazo left an indelible mark on the nation, and on paratrooper and officer Hugo Chavez. None of the country’s yawning injustices were being resolved.
So it was on Feb. 4, 1992, that Col. Chavez led five military units into Caracas in an attempt to seize power. Though he had the support of about 50% of the military, the putsch failed and Chavez was imprisoned. (President Perez would soon also wind up in the clink, impeached over one of his many corruption scandals.)
After he was released from prison in 1994, Chavez—now a civilian—dedicated himself full-time to building up his MVR or Fifth Republic Movement. Chavez’s meteoric success perfectly mirrored the decay of Venezuela’s traditional political system. Millions felt disenfranchised by a system completely locked up by two corrupt parties—both of them dominated by the country’s wealthy and fair-skinned elites. The billions generated by the country’s oil sales had no impact on the teeming slums of Caracas, some of the worst in the hemisphere.
With his unique oratorical style brimming with colorful attacks on his opponents and laced with graphic ribaldry, his vocabulary and speech patterns betraying the lower classes from which he had risen, Chavez quickly galvanized a growing “outside” movement that wanted to turn Venezuelan politics inside out. Raging against corruption and cronyism, and advocating an unabashedly populist program, Chavez smashed Venezuela’s two-party monopoly by winning 56% of the vote in the 1999 presidential elections (though not without raising allegations that he benefited from millions of dollars poured illegally into his campaign by two large bankers ).
An Opera Buffa Coup: Washington’s Dirty Hands
During the first two years of his administration, and after his reelection in 2000, Chavez held several plebiscites to rewrite the constitution and replace the discredited Congress with a unicameral chamber. For a period, he governed primarily by decree, and he stacked the Supreme Court with appointed allies. He angered some to his left by imposing state-monitored elections within the trade unions, for which he drew a rebuke from the International Labor Organization.
But mostly he generated white-hot anger and resistance from the wealthier elites and from the remnants of Venezuela’s crumbling political establishment. Venezuelan politics became bitterly polarized, and at the center of the political storm stood Chavez.
By 2002, Chavez’s agenda was clear: He wanted a break with Washington’s neo-liberal economic policies; he wanted to challenge elite domination of the economy; he wanted land reform, national healthcare and literacy programs. To finance this magnanimous populism, he was willing to spend the billions in profits from Venezuela’s oil sales.
To achieve this goal, Chavez moved to replace the board of the state oil company, which has traditionally been independent of government control. An initial protest strike among oil workers led to a general work stoppage. The business community then joined in the protest. On April 11, 2002, despite Chavez’s vow to crush all opposition, a half-million protesters marched on the presidential palace, where a smaller pro-Chavez rally was being held.
Chavez seized the airwaves several times during the day. His opponents on private TV stations defied him and made their own incendiary demands. Gunfire broke out between the two sides in the streets, with the Metropolitan police, sympathetic to the opposition, on one side and the Venezuelan National Guard, loyal to Chavez, on the other. At least 17 people died and more than 200 were wounded.
In the heat of the confusion, military commanders arrested Chavez and effectively seized power, naming industrialist Pedro Carmona as the interim president. What then ensued was a two-day tragic-comic opera buffa that was an on-again, off-again coup—a historic episode in which the U.S. played a less than honorable role and set the two countries on their collision course.
Throughout the long day and night that Chavez was sequestered and as the military’s handpicked president, Carmona, dissolved all constitutional institutions—the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office and the national electoral commission—the Bush administration remained approvingly silent while sending spokesman Ari Fleischer out to say, in effect, that the whole affair was Chavez’s own fault.
But whoever masterminded the ousting of Chavez badly miscalculated. The majority of Venezuelan combat unit commanders remained loyal to him and, backed by yet one more popular uprising in the streets, they brought Chavez back to power less than 48 hours after he was arrested. The political alliance that spearheaded the coup—the upper and middle classes, supported by the trade union movement—was also short-lived. After the military picked Carmona, a prominent business-class leader, to run the provisional government, labor withdrew its support literally overnight. Within hours of taking over, Carmona found himself isolated, and his house of cards collapsed.
But it was only after the elected president was rightfully restored to office that U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice took to the boards to scold Chavez, saying that he, not the coup-makers, should “respect constitutional processes.”
Although the coup was denounced by 19 Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush administration publicly countenanced the military takeover. Not only did Washington demonstrate a radically selective view of the rule of law; it left itself starkly isolated in a hemisphere that has been subject to endless U.S. lecturing on democracy. As Sen. Christopher Dodd has noted, “To stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling and will have profound implications for hemispheric democracy.”
The leading U.S. papers of record so shamelessly parroted the White House in their initial editorials that The New York Times had to apologize. By midweek after the coup, with Chavez back in power, the Times recanted: “Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer.”
That the Bush administration eagerly wanted to rid itself of Chavez is undeniable. Prior to the attempted coup, U.S. officials met with Carmona and other leaders of the coalition that ousted Chavez, and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America, met with Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, chief of Venezuela’s military high command. Later, during Carmona’s brief reign, according to a U.S. State Department official quoted by the Times, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich phoned Carmona—ostensibly to urge him not to dissolve the National Assembly.
Whether the U.S. directly intervened to overthrow Chavez or merely supported an opposition it hoped would accomplish the task remains a matter of dispute.
Some Chavez defenders see a direct U.S. hand in the coup, with the National Endowment for Democracy underwriting the main players. Other, less partisan analysts, like The Nation’s David Corn, concluded that while NED and the U.S. government may have not played a direct role in the coup, they certainly gave the coup plotters the impression that Washington would have no real objections to toppling Chavez.
Two years after the failed coup, however, documents surfaced (so-called CIA briefs) which clearly indicated that the CIA and the Bush White House knew of the coup attempt in advance and did nothing to stop it or to warn the Chavez government. “This is substantive evidence that the CIA knew in advance about the coup, and it is clear that this intelligence was distributed to dozens of members of the Bush administration, giving them knowledge of coup plotting,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the nonprofit National Security Archive in Washington.
The behavior of the Bush administration in regard to the 2002 coup was a flagrant violation of all the pro-democracy principles that the White House had been annunciating since 9/11 and that it has used to justify the war in Iraq. The posture that Washington took and continues to take toward Chavez is more consistent with earlier bouts of blatant American interventionism in Cuba, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Latin American nations.
This renewed Cold War position of Washington, while deserving a sound condemnation, does not, however, tell us much about what Chavez’s policies look like inside Venezuela.
Chavez has been blessed with an inept and often outrageous political opposition. Though supported by some labor unions and some smaller leftist parties, the opposition has been led primarily by enraged sectors of the more comfortable classes whose tone has often been more than shrill.
Discontent with Chavez was deep enough so that his opposition could—on two occasions—gather millions of signatures calling for a plebiscite on his continued tenure. But when that referendum was eventually held on Aug. 15, 2004, Chavez’s rule was upheld by nearly 60% of the voters. His supporters say that this popularity reflects his many accomplishments. His detractors say it more accurately represents his centralization of power and the inability of his formal opposition to provide an attractive alternative other than a return to the past.
Continued: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The case for Chavez is passionately made, for example, by journalist Christian Parenti, writing in The Nation that the Venezuelan president’s claim to building a new society is being borne out:
What the government has done is spend billions on new social programs, $3.7 billion in the past year alone. As a result, 1.3 million people have learned to read, millions have received medical care and an estimated 35-40 percent of the population now shops at subsidized, government-owned supermarkets. Elementary school enrollment has increased by more than a million, as schools have started offering free food to students. The government has created several banks aimed at small businesses and cooperatives, redeployed part of the military to do public works and is building several new subway systems around the country. To boost agricultural production in a country that imports 80 percent of what it consumes, Chavez has created a land-reform program that rewards private farmers who increase productivity and punishes those who do not with the threat of confiscation. . . .
Parenti and other pro-Chavez writers say they are most impressed by what they see as his push to have Venezuelans organize themselves from the bottom up. Again, Parenti:
The government has also structured many of its social programs in ways that force communities to organize. To gain title to barrio homes built on squatted land, people must band together as neighbors and form land committees. Likewise, many public works jobs require that people form cooperatives and then apply for a group contract. Cynics see these expanding networks of community organizations as nothing more than a clientelist electoral machine. Rank-and-file Chavistas call their movement “participatory democracy,” and the revolution’s intellectuals describe it as a long-term struggle against the cultural pathologies bred by all resource-rich economies—the famous “Dutch disease,” in which the oil-rich state is expected to dole out services to a disorganized and unproductive population.
But Chavez’s critics, like Venezuelan Aleksander Boyd, who says he identifies neither with the government nor its formal opponents, argues that Chavez has perilously concentrated all state power in his hands and—although elected—is hardly a democrat:
The courts, the National Assembly, the army, the police forces, the budget, the electoral council, mind you every single branch of power is ominously controlled by Chavez; who, where or how can we expect some sort of retribution or justice for misuse of power? In what sort of bargaining position are we in?
. . . My idea of politics is that every public servant has to be accountable regardless of hierarchy. Hugo Chavez is but an employee of Venezuela; he’s not the owner of the shop.
Chavez’s mercurial personality, and what seems like an incipient personality cult, also unsettles many. He is prone to making weekend and weeknight television appearances in which, literally for hours, he will ramble on from subject to subject, sing songs and make sexually explicit wisecracks involving anyone from his wife to Condoleezza Rice. The up-close-and-personal profile of Chavez by veteran journalist Alma Guillermoprieto in recent editions of The New York Review of Books does little to dissipate the image of a leader fascinated with, if not drunk on, power.
The domestic political atmosphere created by Chavez (and often stoked by his opponents) certainly has a “revolutionary” feel to it, with all of the best and worst connotations. It’s not only about the poor being organized into “Bolivarian” institutions, but also about Chavez branding the entire opposition as “los escualidos”—the squalid, the weak. It’s a direct derivative of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro calling his universe of critics “gusanos” “escoria”—worms and scum.
While Venezuela’s recent human rights record has little if nothing in common with the tainted record of Cuba or, say, Pinochet’s Chile, there are, nevertheless, legitimate concerns by nonpartisan international observers. Amnesty International points to incidents of torture as well as “continuing reports of unlawful killings of criminal suspects by members of the police. Relatives and witnesses who reported such abuses were frequently threatened or attacked. No effective protection was granted to them despite calls by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for the authorities to do so.” The Amnesty report also accuses Chavez of deliberately exposing human rights workers to dangerous reprisals.
Likewise, Human Rights Watch has criticized Chavez for repressive press laws, including a measure that would impose jail upon those who publicly “disrespect” the president.
The problem with Chavez, says liberal policy analyst Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, is that unlike the new breed of Latin American leftist leaders—such as Presidents Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Lula of Brazil, Kirchner of Argentina and Vasquez of Uruguay, who have long histories of fighting against authoritarian military rule and for democracy—the Venezuelan leader is a creature of the military. While these other leftist presidents “eschew any rhetoric or actions that elevate the armed forces beyond their legitimate role,” says Shifter, Chavez extends them excessive power:
Mr. Chavez presides over an evolving political system that concentrates power and is devoid of checks and balances. He relies chiefly on the armed forces to rule Venezuela. The Fifth Republic Movement, his own party, is a subordinate actor. An unprecedented number of active and retired officers occupy key positions throughout the Chavez administration. More than one-third of the country’s regional governments are in the hands of soldiers linked to Mr. Chavez. The armed forces have increasingly taken on development roles that most of Latin America’s democratic leaders insist be carried out by civilians.
Other critics suggest that Chavez’s success is a temporary bubble inflated by high oil prices and that underneath his revolutionary rhetoric he is more of an old-fashioned populist buying constituencies with lavish handouts. Instead of spending gushes of petro-dollars for quick-hit benefit, they say, Chavez ought to be investing oil profits in long-term development projects. Otherwise, when and if oil prices fall, Chavez’s projects could collapse.
Latin American historian Kenneth Maxwell, a firm critic of American interventionism, warns that Chavez looks less like a Robin Hood and more like a strongman on the model of Argentina’s Juan Peron. Like Chavez, Peron built broad popular support by standing up to foreign economic and political interests and positioning himself as a nationalist and populist. And though the poor, the unions and eventually much of the organized left rallied to his side, Peron saddled Argentina with a heavy legacy of failed promises and authoritarian rule.
Elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly, held on Dec. 4, consolidated Chavez’s domination of the government and opened the door to his extended rule. Citing fears that voting machines could register the identities and choices of individual balloters, the country’s major opposition parties all withdrew and boycotted the elections.
International observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union, however, called the elections broadly fair while noting some irregularities in the process and a lack of confidence in election officials. The EU observers noted that Chavez used government radio and TV as an “excessive resource” during the election campaign, while the OAS delegation noted unfair “political propaganda from high level public officials, including federal, state and municipal officials.”
The results of the election bode poorly for Venezuelan democracy. Candidates allied to Chavez won all 167 seats in the Assembly, shutting out any opposition voice. Instead of the usual 55-60% turnout, only 25% of voters turned out, raising questions about the real level of Chavez’s popularity. The new legislative super-majority in the National Assembly, however, is now expected to put an end to a two-term limit on the six-year presidential term, allowing Chavez to run again in 2012 and hold power until least 2018.
Though the election marked the implosion of his opposition, Chavez was hardly gracious in his victory. He railed that the mild criticism of the electoral process from the OAS and the EU was nothing less than an “ambush,” part of an international plan to “destabilize” Venezuela. “These delegates, both from the OAS and the European Union, connived against the interests of the Venezuelan people and against Venezuelan democracy,” Chavez said in an address broadcast on state television.
Continued: Whither U.S. Policy?
Whither U.S. Policy?
That said, the current Bush policy of blind hostility and confrontation toward Chavez is not only hypocritical but also counterproductive—damaging to Washington, to Venezuela, and ultimately to the Venezuelan people. Wayne Smith, a former U.S diplomat in Cuba, and a relentless critic of Washington policy toward Latin America, sees a discouraging parallel with the absurd relationship that 10 American presidents have had with Fidel Castro. Any legitimate criticism of Castro was overshadowed by American bullying and threats. And that unremitting hostility only served to reinforce Castro’s grip on power. “He plays David to our Goliath in a way that reverberates splendidly in Latin America,”’ says Smith of Castro. “Now, Chavez is doing the same thing.”
Worse, this sort of tunnel vision by Washington “blinds U.S. policymakers to the fact that Chavez’s influence in Latin America is not all pernicious and, no matter how much it is hated, may be presenting solutions to Latin America’s real problems in ways that Washington is not,” as Washington Post columnist Marcela Sanchez put it.
The era of armed Latin American insurgencies has come to an end. And the discontented and the disenfranchised have been using the ballot box and not bazookas to demand social change. The United States should support those efforts rather than short-circuit them.
Whatever his manifold flaws—and without losing sight of some worrisome trends—Hugo Chavez is the duly elected president of Venezuela. While the power relationship between the two countries is wildly disparate, each side has the equal obligation of working with the other despite policy differences. Chavez has the perfect right to roundly criticize and, if he wishes, denounce U.S. policy and development strategy. But he does his people no favor by unduly exacerbating conflict with Washington. The U.S. government, meanwhile, also has the right to criticize Chavez for any violations of democratic rule of law. But those critiques lose all practical and moral value unless they are divorced from illegal and outrageous policies of regime change and covert destabilization and if they don’t simultaneously match up with good-faith efforts of regional and hemispheric cooperation.