Will Chavez go the way of Allende?
by Steven Dudley
The Progressive magazine, April 2002
In Venezuela, the only subject anyone talks about is President
Hugo Chavez. And in cafes, restaurants, bars, taxicabs, universities,
newsrooms, churches, and on street corners, the only question
remaining is: When will he go? Of course, there are those who
say he'll never leave. But they're in the minority. Even his hard-core
supporters seem to be preparing for the worst, feigning strength
in the face of a wave of antiChavez sentiment that pours from
the radio, television, and newspapers all day and night.
Not even the golpistas, those plotting to overthrow the left-leaning,
beleaguered president, are very careful about hiding their identities
anymore. I talked to one on a cellular phone my first day in the
country. I thought army intelligence would be listening to our
conversation, so I spoke to my contact with caution. We talked
in generalities before deciding to meet that afternoon for a coffee.
My golpista told me to go to his office. "But who should
I ask for?" I inquired. He hesitated for a long time, then
told me his name. So much for cloak and dagger, I thought.
At his office building, I humbly asked everyone from the guards
to his colleagues scurrying down the hallways where he was before
finding out that my presence was hardly a secret. "Are you
the journalist?" one of his secretaries asked me when I finally
found his office. "Sit down," she told me. "He'll
be back in a minute."
After he arrived, the two of us sat in his sparsely furnished
office chatting away. When I spoke too loudly about Chavez, he
leaned forward. "No one here at work knows I'm anti-Chavez,"
he explained. According to my contact, the golpistas are headed
up by an ex-general. They work in cells. My contact doesn't know
all the people involved, but his network began as just a group
of powerful businessmen, professionals, and ex-military officers
who would meet for drinks. He called them a "group of consciousness."
Idle talk soon turned to serious discussions of a coup. "Chavez
is going to leave," he confidently assured me during our
first meeting. "Or the army will take him out."
But the colorful and demagogic Chavez is not an easy target.
Although his opponents say he's crazy-they liken him to Abdala
Bucaram, the former Ecuadorian president who was ousted from office
in 1997-Chavez is not losing his mind. He maintains powerful alliances
in the military. And he's still got backing from large portions
of the poor, who make up more than half of the twenty-four million
inhabitants of Venezuela.
From the beginning, Chavez has fought for the so-called shoeless
ones. As a disgruntled paratrooper, he led his own coup attempt
on February 4,1992. It failed, but his calls for reform resonated
throughout Venezuelan society. "The objectives we set for
ourselves have not been possible to achieve for now," he
told a riveted and torn nation over the television that day. "But
new possibilities will rise again, and the country will be able
to move forward to a better future."
During the coup attempt, Chavez wisely cited 1989 riots that
followed the IMF-imposed fiscal austerity measures as proof the
ruling parties were no longer fit to govern. The Caracazo, as
the uprisings are known, left at least 200 dead and the ruling
parties scarred for life. The Democratic Action (DA) and Christian-Democratic
(COPEI) parties had shared decision making duties since they'd
engineered the removal of the country's last military dictator
in 1958. The two parties squeezed the country's oil revenue and
milked the poor for forty years, effectively fueling Chavez's
rapid rise to power.
After being pardoned in 1994, Chavez formed his own party,
the Fifth Republic Movement, which, along with its independent-party
allies, dislodged the DA and COPEI in rapid fashion. By 1998,
Chavez was president, elected with 56 percent of the vote; Chavez's
"Bolivarian Movement" dominated Congress and had replaced
regional politicians throughout the country. It was a "revolution,"
the new president declared. And he was right.
The next year, he and his allies changed the constitution
and renamed the country after the eighteenth century independence
leader Simon Bolivar. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela elected
him president again in 2000. His six-year term is over in 2007,
when he says he'll run for a second term. "Yes, I'll leave,"
he recently told a crowd of his followers as protests mounted
against him. "I'll leave in 2013."
For the first two years, the charismatic ex-soldier had 80
percent approval ratings. What's more, he had the backing of important
business sectors and tacit approval from the United States to
give his "revolution" a try. He furthered his popularity
by breaking tradition: running with his followers in marches,
singing with them during rallies, and fielding their questions
on a Sunday morning talk show aptly called Alo Presidente.
Chavez took advantage of this period to rein in inflation,
a policy he guarded with his political life. He increased social
spending on schools and hospitals. His followers claim a million
delinquent kids have returned to the classroom, and the government
has refurbished 60 percent of the health service facilities. Chavez
launched a massive public works program, employing thousands to
pave over forgotten pot-holed roads. Unemployment remained steady.
Abroad, he stretched his hand out to the OPEC countries and convinced
them to strictly follow production quotas so as to force oil prices
higher. The strategy worked, and the Venezuelan president's international
political stock soared with the surprisingly bold move.
But by late last year, the honeymoon was over. The economy
was slipping, and crime was on the rise. Chavez's approval ratings
dipped, and his enemies emerged from the closet. On December 10,
a national strike organized by big business and opposition politicians
paralyzed the country. And on January 23, on the forty-fourth
anniversary of the beginning of Venezuela's modern democracy,
more than 100,000 people took to the streets to tell the president
he had to go.
To his opposition, Chavez's worst crime has been forging a
close relationship with Fidel Castro. The two leaders have sung
duets in public and played baseball together, and while these
acts are not prohibited by international law, they have provoked
indignation. "He not only admires Castro," Alfredo Pena,
the mayor of Caracas and a former Chavez ally, told me during
an interview in his office, "he reveres him, as if Fidel
Castro was a god." Pena leaned back in his leather chair.
Two paintings of Bolivar flanked the mayor. A couple of Bolivar-era
swords were crossed behind him.
Pena was a columnist and radio and television talk show host
for years before entering politics at Chavez's request. He headed
up the economic table at the constituent assembly, then won the
mayoral race because of Chavez's backing. Now he's the most outspoken
of the president's opponents. In the days following the January
23 anti-Chavez march, Pena said the president had to leave office
or the country should consider replacing him with a military-civilian
junta-strong words for a mayor. "We have to make him change,"
he told me. "And if he doesn't, get him out of power."
Although he doesn't say it, Pena is positioning himself to
take over once Chavez is gone. But the opposition knows he's not
"presidenciable." He simply doesn't command enough power
to govern in these difficult times. In fact, my golpista recognized
that one of the main problems the opposition has is that no one
has emerged as a viable alternative. "We have been trying
to figure out what to do about that," he admitted to me as
we sipped beers and ate ceviche at a seafood restaurant. "But
there's little consensus on a leader." He also said that
the civilian side had very little contact with active military
officials. The gap, he hopes, will be filled by the ex-military
The most logical place to look for the leader of the opposition
is the Frente Institucional Militar. The Frente is a group of
ex-military officers who came together a couple of years ago to
protest what they call Chavez's mismanagement of the armed forces.
They say Chavez has used promotion and favors to maintain control
over the military. They also say he's degraded the military by
making mid-level officers part of his government and forcing the
high-ranking soldiers to salute them. "He wears a uniform
on days you're not allowed to wear one," the vice president
of the Frente, retired Air Force General Manuel Andare, told me
over breakfast one morning. "He's not a soldier anymore.
To him, it's a costume. He's making fun of the military institution."
Andare gave me a letter he said was written by top military
brass and was the most accurate perception of the military's feelings
towards Chavez. "Mr. President," it read, "you
showed yourself to be a man of the new generation and with the
same professional training, illustrated your willingness to produce
changes that the country needed. However, you've only shown us
that you are just a pro-Fidel Castro revolutionary, with sympathy
for totalitarian governments that, with the excuse of being popular,
repress their people and don't permit any freedom."
The military's dissent is channeled through the Frente, which
frequently leaks damaging material to the press. Similar letters
allegedly signed by more than 100 active generals have appeared
But the Frente has also leveled some of the most laughable
accusations against the president. Recently, the group photocopied
a document it said proved connections between Chavez's allies
in regional posts and terrorist networks in Northern Africa and
the Middle East. Andare messengered me the documents in a sealed
envelope. When I opened it, I found an agreement between two local
politicians and Libya to exchange "experiences and programs"
that benefit elderly people, the arts community, and youth. Other
opposition accusations are even more absurd. One assemblyman called
a press conference to announce that Chavez was spying on Venezuelans
via Direct TV. Questions have also been raised because of Chavez's
tolerant attitude toward Colombia's guerrillas. Recently, his
opponents in the Frente leaked a video of a trip made by Venezuelan
army personnel to negotiate the release of a Venezuelan citizen
being held captive by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia) guerrillas. The video showed the Venezuelans chatting
amiably with the rebels. The opposition said it illustrated Chavez's
sympathy for the Colombian guerrillas. Chavez said it was a "humanitarian
From the beginning, the president has been an outspoken opponent
of U.S. military aid to Colombia. The aid has assisted the Colombian
military and police in their efforts to fight the rebels and destroy
the coca fields that help finance the FARC's thirty-eight-year
war against the state.
Chavez has also expressed willingness to mediate in peace
talks between the rebels and the government, and has even allowed
FARC guerrillas to speak before the National Assembly.
The opposition in Venezuela suspects that Chavez and the FARC
are hatching a long-term plan to cooperate. Along with the video,
a 1999 memo surfaced from now interior minister Ramon Rodriguez
Chacin to the president saying the FARC agreed not to enter Venezuelan
territory in return for medicine and other supplies. That same
week Colombian authorities stopped an airplane coming in from
Venezuela carrying 15,000 rounds of ammunition that they said
may have been destined for the rebels. Chavez, the opposition
says, speaks as a leader of a continent, not a country.
The most serious attempts to satanize Chavez, though, still
come via his connections to Cuba. My golpista contact said Chavez
was arming his people to spy on the neighborhoods and fight if
there's an attempt to overthrow him. "Many of these guys
(550, to be exact) were trained in Cuba," the golpista said.
"They have small arms, grenades, plastic explosives....
They're the same as Hitler's Brown Shirts."
These "Brown Shirts" form part of what Chavez calls
the "Bolivarian Circles." They are groups of hardcore
Chavez supporters who organize community education programs, health
care facilities, and political rallies. My golpista contact, however,
was not convinced. "There are Cubans disguised as doctors,"
he said. "Whenever someone is sick, they go to their home
and indoctrinate them. They've gotten a lot of followers this
It wasn't difficult finding Chavez supporters. Many of them
live in the massive multicolored housing projects that make up
the "January 23" neighborhood. The neighbor
hood got its name from the overthrow of the last Venezuelan
military dictator, Marco Perez Jimenez, on January 23, 1958. He'd
built the houses. The poor filled in the cracks with makeshift
shacks. Electricity, water, and telephones soon followed. The
fourteen-story buildings tower over the city. Clothes hang from
every other window. Red and black flags supporting Chavez adorn
some of the rooftops.
Along the walls of the housing projects, graffiti urges Chavez's
"revolution" forward. Murals of Che and rebel leaders
of other Latin American countries speak to the neighborhood's
militancy. Some of the messages are more direct: "Form Bolivarian
Militias," one read. Another boasted that the "Army
of the People in Arms," or EPA, was present.
The "Simon Bolivar Cultural Foundation" was on the
main strip cutting through the neighborhood. It is the center
of Chavez's support network, the place where the Bolivarian Circles
span out to every corner of the barrio to "indoctrinate"
the people. The foundation organizes festivals, has a community
radio station, runs a dance clinic, and holds karate classes for
youngsters. A short-haired, well-made-up woman named Susana Rodriguez
runs the foundation. As I entered her office, she was reading
the revolutionary writings of Regis Debray. On the walls were
more paintings and pictures of Che. She called everyone "comrade"
I asked her about the Bolivarian Circles. "These aren't
a new idea," she explained. They organized cultural and sports
activities, health and educational projects, she said. "A
neighborhood association could be considered a Bolivarian Circle.
Why? Because they sit down and evaluate their achievements and
failures," Rodriguez said. And the Cubans? I inquired. "The
right has wanted to paint the Bolivarian Circles in the Cuban
light.... There are some Cubans in the health services where we
most need the help."
Chavez won popularity amongst the "shoeless ones"
with his calls for land reforms, better health care and education,
and lower unemployment. But the president's attempts to obtain
a sweeping land reform law have stalled, and although he still
controls by a slight margin the National Assembly-the new constitution
abolished the old Congress and created a unicameral system- he's
been unable to effectively push through many of his other promised
actions. Instead, he has stuck to marginalizing his opponents
at the podium, and in three years has effectively created enemies
of the Catholic church, the media, the major business associations,
many unions, parts of the military, and even some of the poor.
And he may lose more support following his decision to free-float
the currency, which has already caused prices to skyrocket and
frozen small businesses. (Chavez quickly tried to mitigate the
effects of the devaluation by announcing a $2 billion spending
plan that would, he said, create 250,000 jobs, offer low interest
loans to small businesses, and provide homes for 130,000 families.)
When I met with her, Rodriguez felt cornered. She assured
me that a plot was under way to overthrow the Chavez government.
Echoing Chavez's own public statements, she also said it was headed
up by the powerful union boss Carlos Ortega and ex-president of
Venezuela Carlos Andres Perez. Just a few days before I visited
the foundation, Chavez had claimed that Perez, who was president
during the 1989 riots and when Chavez tried his coup, and Ortega,
who is also an assemblyman, were trying to buy a few pro-Chavez
legislators in order to steal away the slight majority the president
still has in the National Assembly. Rodriguez said Ortega is on
the golpistas' payroll; Perez was impeached in 1993 on charges
of corruption but was never convicted. "With the money they
stole, they all fly to Miami and from there they plot," she
said. "The conspiracy of the rich has infected the church
and some sectors of the military. Every day we can see a little
bit better who is on what side."
Rodriguez was particularly angry with the press, which she
claimed was manipulating the polls. "How many times does
the commander [Chavez] have to legitimize his rule?" She
mentioned the two elections and the constitutional assembly as
proof. "The rich don't want poverty to disappear from our
country. They need poverty to continue being rich."
I asked her if they were arming themselves for battle, as
the opposition alleged. "We don't have to," she said.
"We are people of peace; it's simply not in the cards. In
fact, I think we're showing a lot of tolerance and respect for
democracy. We're not going to change our course. We're reconstructing
this country that they left in ruins. Forty years of corruption.
Forty years of mismanagement. They should either leave the country
or accept what we're doing."
During much of the turmoil, the United States has given the
appearance of sitting on the sidelines. But it's no secret that
it doesn't like Chavez's behavior. Chavez's social democratic
approach has steadily turned more socialist as his enemies have
cornered him. His latest eye-opening policy move came when he
sneaked a bill through the National Assembly to increase government
royalties on oil production from 16 to 30 percent. Such a groundsweeping
law could be his eventual undoing. Venezuela is the number two
supplier of oil products to the United States, and the number
four oil exporter worldwide.
But changing the oil law to increase royalties doesn't anger
the United States as much as Chavez's crucial role in uniting
OPEC countries. The resulting controls on production have kept
oil prices steadily high until recently. Chavez has also forged
ties with pariah oil-producing states such as Iraq and Iran, a
fact not lost on the State Department. "He drops in on some
of the strangest countries to visit," Secretary of State
Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently,
referring to Chavez's trip to Iraq, the first for a head of state
since sanctions were imposed on that country in 1990. "I'm
not sure what inspiration he thinks he gets or what benefit he
gets for the Venezuelan people dropping in and visiting some of
these despotic regimes."
Chavez's thinly veiled criticisms of the United States are
also getting more belligerent. On some days, he's like two different
people. When asked at a press conference I attended how he was
managing relations with the Bush Administration, he responded,
"The relationship between Venezuela and the U.S.... is starting
to become clearer and stronger." Yet that evening, in front
of thousands of his followers, he was blasting the U.S. "neoliberal"
model that would lead the Venezuelans to "hell." His
crowning anti-U.S. moment came during an October speech in which
he criticized the United States for using terror to fight terror
in Central Asia. He held up photos of burned Afghan children to
prove his point. According to an article in The Washington Post,
the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Donna Hrinak, told Chavez "to
keep his mouth shut on these important issues." Now the relationship
is in tatters.
Still, the United States and the opposition are going to great
lengths to publicly separate themselves. My golpista contact said
his organization had contact with the embassy but no support from
the U.S. government. "We want this to be a Venezuelan thing,"
he insisted. The Frente's Andare reiterated this. But the U.S.
government had to admit that members of Chavez's opposition movement
had contacted it to see if Washington would support a coup.
"We believe that all parties should respect democratic
institutions," White House spokesman Richard Boucher told
reporters in response to questions about Washington's ties with
dissident military officials. "Those who may want change,
political change, need to pursue it democratically and constitutionally."
Yet, the situation does feel as if it could be another Chile
1973. The similarities are eerie: A democratically elected left-leaning
president in an energy-rich country in Latin America takes the
U.S. model head-on; the economy tanks, resistance builds, and
a military with an apolitical tradition steps in with the help
of the United States. As in 1973, the opposition has confidence
in the Republican Party. President George Bush's election "was
the best thing that could have happened to Venezuela," Andare
said to me.
My golpista contact was equally chuff with the appointment
of Otto Reich as the head of the State
Department's Latin America desk. In addition to running propaganda
for the contra war against the Sandinistas, the Cuban American
Reich was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela in the mid-1980s and has
strong anti-Castro ties in Miami. "He knows what's going
on here," my contact said. "He knows people.... I'm
sure he's putting things into motion." What "things,"
he wouldn't say. Both men did emphasize, however, that they thought
the U.S. intelligence agencies were being rejuvenated under the
new Administration. "Their attitudes show us that when something
happens, they're not going to resist," my golpista contact
told me as we sipped coffee at a cafe. "They know who he
[Chavez] is. They know that if Venezuela falls, so does Colombia."
Inside Colombia, the guerrillas' arch-enemies, the rightwing
paramilitaries, have no doubt there are close ties between Chavez
and the FARC. They've declared him a "military objective."
After a few whiskeys at the home of a paramilitary leader, one
of them told me, "Give us a week, and we'd take care of that
problem. But we can't right now, not without some major backing."
Then he asked me, "Do you think the U.S. would ask us to
do that for them?"
These days, things seem to be accelerating at a torrid pace
in Venezuela. On February 7, an active colonel in the air force
told a stunned audience at a conference that Chavez should leave
office. "The president has to go. He has to resign and call
elections to leave this country in the hands of a democracy, of
a civilian," Colonel Pedro Luis Soto repeated to reporters
following the conference.
Chavez dispatched some military police to arrest the dissident,
but locals forced the authorities to refrain. The colonel was
then carried to the presidential palace by a throng of anti-Chavez
protesters. A national guardsman joined him, and the two of them
spent much of the rest of the night talking to reporters and chanting
"tyrant" outside the president's house. For a moment,
it appeared as if the coup might happen that day. I called Andare
from Colombia. He assured me as he walked the streets that it
was "spontaneous." My golpista contact said the same.
"This is the people," he said. "We have nothing
to do with this." The protests fizzled out, but tensions
remain. Since the Soto revolt, two others-an air force general
and an army general-have also called for Chavez to resign.
There are several constitutional ways in which Chavez could
be forced to leave. In their letter to the president, the military
officials cited the most viable one. "We believe that the
President will change," they wrote. "If he doesn't,
then the only thing left is . . . to revoke his presidential mandate
with a referendum." This can only happen after the midpoint
in Chavez's term, i.e., 2004.
For many, this is too long to wait, so they are trying to
prove he's a criminal or "mentally unfit" for the job.
The Democratic Action Party presented the "too-crazy-to-rule"
case to the supreme court in late January. The opposition is also
searching every nook and cranny for alleged crimes. However, both
processes are long and unlikely to produce results before the
midpoint of the president's term.
And are insisted on a similar salida-exit. None of the opposition
I spoke with would accept that Chavez has until 2007 to prove
his program. He simply had to go. "This is going to happen,"
my golpista contact reiterated to me when I last saw him. "I
can't tell you when, but this is going to happen." Will it
be bloody? I asked him. "That's up to the president. Most
likely, yes.... We know that it's for the good of the country;
we don't want to be communists."
To be sure, the "revolution" will not end quietly.
A little more than a week after the January 23rd antiChavez march,
the president held his own march-a celebration of his failed February
4 coup-and illustrated what keeps him in power. Around the city
were posters of the young leader in his signature red paratrooper
beret. "FOR NOW," the posters read, "Now more than
ever!" I caught up to the march at around eight in the evening.
Hundreds of thousands of people wearing red berets rumbled toward
the presidential palace where Chavez was set to give one of his
multi-hour speeches. As I neared the podium, people yelled out,
"Make way for the international press," and opened a
space for me to slip through. Some added, "Tell the truth!"-the
battle cry of the people against the media's antiChavez campaign.
When their leader appeared wearing his customary Venezuelan-flag
jumpsuit and beret, the roar was deafening. He rolled through
the words with the energy of a preacherman. He doesn't use a TelePrompTer.
He simply woos the crowd with a thunderous baritone. He frequently
leveled his enemies-the esqualidos as he calls them, which means
"few" or "insignificant"-with underhanded
remarks, then he prompted the crowd to chant or sing with him.
His favorite is the "Bolivarian Wave." As I reached
the front of the crowd, he skillfully sent the hands down the
street before announcing that the wave was coming in an emotionally
charged, "Ya viene! Ya viene! Ya viene la OLA BOLIVARIANA!"
Fireworks accompanied his punch line.
Steven Dudley is a freelance journalist in Colombia, where
he reports regularly for The Washington Post and National Public