Adios Presidente

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 officials.

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 in newspapers.

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 mission."

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 way."

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" and "companero."

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 Radio.

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