Hugo Chavez and Petro Populism
by Christian Parenti
The Nation magazine, April 11,
The views from the slopes of Barrio San
AgustIn del Sur are spectacular. Tight passageways frame Caracas
and the lush, cloud-draped Avila Mountain beyond. Along the neighborhood's
rough cement steps, teenagers lounge around, flirting, arguing
or lost in the cheap text-messaging functions of their cell phones.
Ascending a nearby cliff is a small garbage dump. From afar its
refuse looks like the sand in some ominous urban hourglass.
Illiteracy, violence, disease and the
listlessness of endemic unemployment have shaped the life of this
barrio since landless squatters from the countryside first settled
it about forty years ago. But much of that could be changing.
"Even though we have had problems,
we are moving forward," says Carmen Guerrero, a woman in
her late 40s who is one of San Agustin's most dedicated activists.
"Here, we are all with President Chavez. Everybody except
for maybe . six families."
On the yellow walls of her living room
are masks in the form of fashionable ladies' faces, a clock, a
mirror and a small picture of Venezuela's populist president,
Hugo Chavez FrIas. Guerrero explains that she and her neighbors
are studying in several government-created programs called missions
and organizing themselves into committees to deal with everything
from local and national election campaigns to sanitation and legalization
of land titles.
Like most slums in Caracas, this community
also has a state-owned, subsidized market, a soup kitchen, a number
of small-scale cooperative businesses and a little two-story,
octagonal, redbrick medical center. Upstairs two Cuban doctors
live in cramped quarters; downstairs is a small waiting room and
Guerrero's neighbor, a young man named
Carlos Martinez, is showing me around; he works with the local
construction cooperative. They have a contract from the mayor's
office to lay new drainage pipe in the barrio. Given the recent
flooding, it is an important task. Later he shows me where a patch
of ranchos-dirt-floored shacks made of corrugated tin and wood-are
being replaced at government expense by solid, two-story brick
For this little barrio and a thousand
others like it, such changes mean a lot. Like two generations
of Venezuelan politicians before him, Chavez has pledged sembrar
el petróleo-to sow the oil. That is, to invest its profits
in a way that transforms the very structure of Venezuela's economy.
But what would that entail? Are social programs enough?
Lately Chavez has been talking about a
"revolution within the revolution," about "transcending
capitalism" and about "building a socialism for the
twenty-first century." It is a discourse that frightens his
enemies, electrifies his base and inspires the left throughout
Latin America. After two decades of the US-promoted Washington
Consensus-a cocktail of radical privatization, open markets and
severe fiscal austerity-Latin America is an economic disaster
marked by increasing poverty and inequality.
Taken as a whole and controlling for inflation,
Latin America has grown little since the mid-1980s and hardly
at all in the past seven years. With the entire region primed
for social change, a new breed of populists and social democrats
is coming to power. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, in addition
to Venezuela, have leftist governments of some sort, while Colombia,
Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru will hold presidential elections
But a closer look at Venezuela reveals
just how vexing and complicated a political and economic turn
to the left can be, even in a country that is rich with oil and
not deeply indebted.
Thus far, Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution,
named for South America's nineteenth-century liberator, Simon
BolIvar, has deepened and politicized a pre-existing tradition
of Venezuelan populism. Despite Chavez's often radical discourse,
the government has not engaged in mass expropriations of private
fortunes, even agricultural ones, nor plowed huge sums into new
collectively owned forms of production. In fact, private property
is protected in the new Constitution promulgated after Chavez
came to power. 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.
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 for the moment, the Venezuelan battle
against poverty is possible only because oil prices have been
at record highs for several years, and the state owns most of
the petroleum industry. All of Venezuela's oil and mining and
most of its basic industry were nationalized in the mid-1970s.
On average, oil sales make up 30 percent of Venezuelan GDP, provide
half of state income and make up 80 percent of all Venezuelan
Internal and often sympathetic critics
of the reform process in Venezuela say it is one thing to "spend
the oil" on social welfare; it is another altogether to "sow
the oil" and create new collectively owned, productive, nonsubsidized
industries that will generate wealth in an egalitarian and sustainable
When the coup happened we realized we
had to get involved or we would lose everything' explains Carmen
Guerrero. She says she was always a Chavez supporter but was not
very active until the April 2002 coup d'etat against Chavez launched
by Venezuela's main business council, its notoriously corrupt
labor federation, dissident military officers and masses of middle-
and upper-class Caraquenos. Declassified documents have since
revealed that the CIA knew at least a week beforehand that a coup
was planned, while other US government agencies, such as the National
Endowment for Democracy, were channeling aid to the opposition.
"There is no going back now,"
says Guerrero. Then, very seriously, she adds: "I hugged
Chavez at a rally. I don't know how I
got through security. I guess because I am short. I can't explain
the feeling, the emotion was so strong." She clutches her
fists to her breast and looks away.
Guerrero started supporting Chavez in
1992, on that fateful day when the then-unknown 37-year-old colonel
launched a failed coup of his own. When defeat appeared imminent,
Chavez surrendered. To avoid a bloodbath he went on television
and asked his compatriots who were still holding two cities to
put down their weapons.
During that short live broadcast Chavez
did two things that electrified the Venezuelan imagination. First,
he took personal responsibility for the botched coup. This seemed
to many viewers like a significant break from the standard political
tradition of lying and blaming others for failure. Then, in explaining
the defeat, Chavez said, "For now, the objectives that we
have set for ourselves have not been achieved."
During the next two years, while Chavez
was in prison studying, that key phrase-"for now," or
por ahora in Spanish-became a rallying cry, a slogan of defiance
painted on walls, a talisman of hope in an otherwise squalid and
corrupt political landscape.
Guerrero's sentiments, down to the details
about the coup and the por ahora speech, were echoed again and
again in dozens of interviews throughout some of Caracas's poorest
slums. The majority of people here-ranging from formerly apolitical
housewives to hard-core veterans of the urban guerrilla movements
of the 1970s-revere President Chavez. They view him as a political
saint, a savior, the embodiment of a new national ideal.
But through Guerrero's open front door
we can see the Modernist towers of offices, banks, hotels and
luxury apartments in the other Caracas, a city that has grown
fat on the vast oil fortunes flowing from Venezuela's subsoil.
It is this contrast between rich and poor-a
contrast so visually obvious as to make the landscape of Caracas
feel almost didactic-that animates Venezuelan politics. And in
the other Caracas, the one with the country clubs, the citizens
hate Chavez with an ardor as strong as the devotion one finds
for him in the barrios. Just as the urban poor and campesinos
love Chavez because of his swarthy, indigenous looks, tight curly
hair and his rough, down-to-earth talk, so too are the wealthier
classes driven apoplectic with rage by the fact that their president
looks likes a construction worker or cab driver.
For six years Chavez and his supporters
have battled this opposition, an enemy that Chavez has nicknamed
los escuálidos, or "the weaklings." But the opposition
has not always been so weak. It includes the privately owned mass
media, which have been virulently and propagandistically hostile
to the government, devoting days at a time to commercial-free
attacks on it as "totalitarian" and "Castro communist."
There was the armed coup, then the oil strike, which cost the
economy an estimated $7.5 billion and led to severe shortages
of gas, food and beer. As one consultant in the Planning Ministry
said in all seriousness: "I thought the day we ran out of
beer would be the day the country fell into anarchy and civil
There was also a prolonged public protest
by a group of respected former generals who urged active soldiers
to rebel. Then there was a series of violent protests by rightist
street fighters calling themselves the Guarimbas, who set up burning
barricades during early 2004.
Despite all this, Chavez and his political
allies have won seven national ballots, including the approval
of a new Constitution, an overhaul of the notoriously corrupt
judiciary, two national legislative elections, two presidential
elections and one attempted presidential recall.
Through it all, occasional armed clashes
between hard-core Chavistas and opposition militants have left
about twenty people on both sides dead or seriously wounded. And
the Chavez government has enacted a media law that punishes slander
with jail time and prohibits broadcast of the twenty-four-hour-a-day
video loops that were an opposition favorite, drawing sharp criticism
from press-freedom advocates. But there has been no major government
campaign of repression, not even against the architects of the
coup, many of whom are at liberty and still in Venezuela.
The barrio 23 de Enero (January 23) is
to the Venezuelan left what Compton is to hip-hop: the home of
its hard core. The barrio's eponym is the date of a popular uprising
that took place in 1958 against dictator Marcos Perez Jiménez.
Tucked into a Caracas valley and flowing over a few hillsides,
23 de Enero is a mix of 1950s-era cement tower blocks and the
usual cinder-block homes wedged along winding staircases and walkways.
The ten- and fifteen-story tower blocks
are adorned in an improbable and tatterdemalion layer of colorful
laundry hanging from external drying racks or barred windows.
Behind the clothes ,and the bars one can see lush potted plants,
caged and squawking birds or household items stacked up in the
tiny, overcrowded apartments. On the back sides of the towers,
mounds of trash sit in and around dumpsters that are placed below
long, dilapidated external garbage chutes that usually have big
sections of pipe missing.
From the top of each tower flies a red-and-blue
flag: the colors of the Coordinador Simon BolIvar, a powerful
community organization that has its roots in the urban guerrilla
movements of the .1 970s and '80s. Described with the catchphrase
Tupamaros, these urban partisans were really a collection of groups
and factions rather than a single force, as the name would suggest.
Even today, many comrades in the barrios
are still armed. A fellow journalist was pulled over by masked
gunmen at a Tupamaro checkpoint in 23 de Enero during the tense
days around the August 2004 referendum. The homies were making
sure no escuálido thugs snuck into the 'hood to do a' drive-by.
They also wanted my friend to donate his video camera to the revolution,
putting a gun to his head to help him make his decision. But when
adult supervision finally showed up, the muchachos running the
traffic stop were persuaded to give back the camera.
At the Coordinador's little headquarters
I meet this other type of Chavista: not a sentimental housewife
like Guerrero, but a hard-core ex-guerrilla. Juan Contreras is
balding, a bit paunchy and has rather un-
assuming boyish features, but he got his
political education the hard way and at a young age: in the form
of demonstrations, police beatings and
shootouts with the paramilitary forces
of the state. He is now one of the key organizers in the Coordinador.
The walls outside the office are covered
in revolutionary murals: One honors a youth killed in a demonstration
against Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, another is for the Zapatistas,
a third displays the classic Alberto Korda portrait of Che Guevara.
Most of the art predates Chavez, and none portrays his image.
"Chavez did not produce the movements-we
produced him," explains Contreras. "He has helped us
tremendously, but what is going on here cannot be, ascribed only
According to Contreras and a few of his
comrades, the Coordinador got its start after the failed Chavez
coup in 1992. In the wake of that defeat, the government began
jailing leftists. Contreras fled to Cuba for a month with twenty-nine
other activists from 23 de Enero; upon their return, almost all
of them were arrested, and Contreras went into hiding. About a
year and a half after the attempted coup, the activists regrouped
and decided that armed struggle was definitely over and done with.
They created the Coordinador and devoted themselves to aboveground
Today the Coordinador pursues a three-pronged
strategy that involves reclaiming public space from drug gangs,
recovering local cultural traditions and promoting organized sports.
Already the barrio has produced several players for Major League
Baseball, including Ugueth Urbina, Juan Carlos Ovalles and Juan
Carlos Pulido. Later a young guy named Kristhian Linares stops
by to pay his respects to Contreras. Only 18 years old, Linares
has just signed with the Florida Marlins. He starts spring training
as soon as his papers are in order.
After building these forms of social solidarity,
the Coordinador then launched another project, setting up committees
to deal with health, land titles, elections and the like. Some
of this work interfaces with government-funded missions, some
doesn't. But the paramount issue here is security. The slums of
Caracas are extremely violent. Every week, around eighty people
are murdered in this city of 5 million.
"We use culture and sports and organization
to take over public spaces," explains Contreras. What if
the drug gangs refuse to move? "Well, many of them are connected
by family to the larger community, so we use that pressure. There
is the armed tradition here, and they respect that. And there
is a tradition of lynching in this barrio. In the past the community
has killed some criminals. Not recently, but it has happened.
So most of the gangs take us seriously and stay away from the
Later, as we scale a ridge packed with
little homes, he explains that farther into the barrio are some
agricultural projects but that I'll have to come back to visit
them because the outlying areas become dangerous in the afternoon.
Clearly, cultural reclamation plus threat of lynching does not
completely displace crime.
It also seems that the opposition, or
elements in it, have on occasion used criminals against Chavistas.
An activist from nearby 23 de Enero, a woman who once lived in
California, tells the story of a gangster who was paid to make
death threats against the local Cuban doctors. The doctors got
so freaked out they split. But the woman, a trained social worker,
found the young thug, a local guy, and explained to him that he
would certainly be tracked down and killed by angry Chavistas
if he persisted with his threats. The gangster reconsidered and
decided to stay out of politics. The Cuban doctors returned.
The organized opposition to Chavez is
rather thin on the ground these days, having been largely discredited
by the right-wing extremism of their coup and the economic devastation
caused by their oil strike. So I visit the offices of the right-wing
tabloid AsI Es la Noticia, owned by one of Venezuela's top-circulation
dailies, El Nacional.
"Look, Chavez won the referendum.
People have to accept that," says the editor, Albor Rodriguez.
She is in her early 30s, an escuálido all the way, but
she respects the facts.
Standing erect at her desk, one black-clad
shoulder tipped forward, she takes long drags on her cigarette
between comments. "There is no 'Castro communist' here. That's
ridiculous. They say there are Cubans in the government and the
security. But there is no proof. However, does Chavez have autocratic
tendencies? Yes! He comes from the military. Does his government,
or he himself, know what they are doing? No! His head is a mix-a
marmalade of notions and slogans. He speaks without thinking.
He makes innuendoes about Condoleezza Rice being in love with
him. That's insane. He's totally erratic."
Albor, to my surprise, is almost as harsh
on the opposition: "They lost because Chavez has a deep emotional
connection with the people, and. they have no connection with
the people. Also, he has spent a lot of money on the barrios.
He pours money into the barrios."
She explains that when her paper reported
on the real work of the missions, some readers accused her of
lying and "having gone to the moon to find these things?'
She explains: "The opposition lied to itself. They were deluded
and now they are smashed." With that rather definitive summation,
she puts out her cigarette and invites me to lunch.
There are some in the opposition whose
critique focuses less on Chavez's supposed abuses of power and
more on the government's alleged mismanagement and left-wing economic
tomfoolery. Oscar Garcia Mendoza is president of Banco Venezolano
de Credito, a very old and conservative bank. He's what Chavez
would call an "oligarch," the official enemy: a capitalist
financier. But when I meet him in his beautiful corner office
on the ninth floor of a Modernist highrise, he is beaming. He
wears a dark blue suit, his gray hair is cropped stylishly short
and he has that healthy look that seems to come from being rich
Classical music filters out from speakers
in the ceiling; on the table are fine Cuban cigars. We sit in
bent plywood and leather Herman Miller chairs, and gaze out across
the city through a glass wall lined with thick green plants.
"Business has never been better'
says Garcia. "This government is totally incompetent. They
have no idea what they are doing. The head of their land reform,
Eliezer Otaiza, is a former male stripper. And did you see they
just appointed Carlos Lanz, a former terrorist kidnapper, a communist,
as head of Alcasa, our largest aluminum company?" Through
it all, Garcia wears a slightly suppressed grin as if he thinks
the whole thing is hilarious. "I mean, can you imagine that?"
In a way, Lanz's appointment is not so
outrageous: Another former guerrilla, Ali Rodriguez Araque, once
minister of mining and energy, then head of OPEC, is now foreign
minister and widely respected as a level-headed negotiator.
Garcia also has some very concrete criticisms.
He says that the current economic boom is a chimera based on oil
prices. In 2004 government spending jumped 47 percent, much of
which went to pay for healthcare and education-the missions. But
despite the oil windfall, the government has had to borrow heavily.
Instead of turning to international financiers, it has increased
its internal debt to Venezuelan banks.
Garcia says that in the past four years
this internal debt has gone from $2 billion to more than $27 billion.
The Finance Ministry confirms these figures and says that 60 percent
of this debt is held in government bonds.
"But what makes this really crazy,"
says Garcia, "is that the government is depositing all its
oil revenue in the same banks at about 5 percent, then borrowing
it back at 14 percent. It's a very -easy way for bankers to make
money. That's why I say this is a government for the rich."
Last year Venezuelan banks made $1.38
billion in profits, just a bit more than they did the year before.
And most of that money came from lending to the Chavez government
and trading in special government-approved, dollar-denominated
bonds, a legal loophole in the new currency-control law. Garcia's
bank actually does no business with the government, but the huge
increase in oil revenues has doubled his loan portfolio. The economy
is awash in money: Growth was 17.3 percent in 2004.
So if the economy is booming, why does
Garcia dislike Chavez?
"These people are crooks," he
says. "Look, Venezuela has always been corrupt, but these
guys are the worst." When I point out that the government
just fired 120 managers in Zulia state for corruption, Garcia
waves it away as insufficient.
"What are they doing with all the
money? They are not investing. They spend it all on food and medicine.
As soon as oil goes down, their party is over." So what should
the government do to avoid this? "They should privatize everything."
Getting a Chavez government response to
charges of mismanagement, corruption and overdependence on freakishly
high oil prices is difficult. My inquiries are fed into the labyrinthine
bureaucracy of the Information Ministry, where every few days
a new official loses my paperwork and needs a full CV and another
letter from my editors and another complete written explanation
of my project.
After three weeks no one in the Chavez
government has come forth with an on-the-record statement except
for one laid-back spokesperson at the Higher Education Ministry.
Finally an old friend gets me an interview
with his boss, Jorge Giordani, a former academic who befriended
Chavez during the rebellious paratrooper's stint in jail and is
now the planning and development minister. On matters of economic
development, Giordani is the revolution's brain. We meet in his
office near the top of South America's tallest building, one of
a pair of towers, the other of which stands half-burned, its gold-tinted,
mirrored windows blown out and black, the result of a recent accident
caused by bad maintenance.
Giordani is tall, gray and hunched. He
wears big glasses, a tie, a brown cardigan sweater and has a short
white Abe Lincoln beard. He evades most specific questions. As
for corruption, he says simply: "We are not doing enough.
It is a very serious problem."
Mostly he offers a long but interesting
explanation of Venezuela's historical development and its lack
of internal economic integration. We move from map to map as he
explicates the economic geography of various regions.
Many Chavistas hope that investing in
physical infrastructure, health and education will open new, nonpetroleum
industries in high technology, business services, healthcare and
agriculture. When I ask Giordani how the country plans to wean
itself from oil, about land reform and about the many so-called
"endogenous" development projects being promoted, he
sighs and shakes his head as if I am naïve.
"We've been fighting political battles
for most of our time in office. Many people have learned to read
in the last few years, but how long will it take for them to work
in high technology, or medicine, or services? Ten years? A generation?
We are fighting a very individualistic, rentier culture. Everything
has been 'Mama state, Papa state, give me oil money.' To organize
people is extremely hard."
After a long, roundabout discussion in
which I press him on the question of import substitution and new
industrialization, he settles on one key point: Venezuela's only
real hope lies in regional economic integration. Only then will
internal markets be big enough to nurture alternative technologies
and new industries that might otherwise threaten current multinational
Giordani seems weary and cynical. "No,
I am just practical," he says with a chuckle. "Development
in Venezuela will take at least fifty years?'
And how long will the oil last?
"Maybe twenty years, maybe thirty."
Christian Parenti, a fellow at CUNY's
Center for Place, Culture and Politics, is the author of The Freedom:
Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press). Research
support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
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