The Big Blowup Over Venezuela

By Marc Cooper
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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper's career in journalism began in 1966, when he founded and edited an underground newspaper in high school in Los Angeles. After being expelled from the California State University system for his…
Marc Cooper

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?
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