Monday, May 08, 2006
The new kid on the barrio
The Observer, United Kingdom
Sunday May 7, 2006
They call him the the new Che Guevara. Loved and loathed in equal measure, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has become the poster boy of the international left, revered by his disciples at home but reviled in Washington. On the eve of Chavez's visit to Britain, foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont travels to Caracas and asks if the Castro-loving, Bush-hating, head of state is a revolutionary democrat or a dictator in the making?
It is Sunday, and in Venezuela it's time to watch President Hugo Chávez's television programme. This week he has taken his media roadshow to the town of El Tigre, where Aló Presidente is being broadcast from one of the cost-price supermarkets - known as Mercals - that he has set up to provide cheap food for the poor. As always, the show's main interest, its star, is the President himself.
In a red shirt worn over a red T-shirt, Chávez leaves his anchor's table and strides through the store. He picks goods off the shelf and reads aloud from the packets, which are printed with extracts from his constitution, and offers a little homily on each. He is accompanied by a wilting and sweating Daniel Ortega, the former Nicaraguan President and Sandinista leader, who looks on baffled as Chávez maintains a breathless commentary on the micro-management of his 'Bolívarian revolution' by way of the food basket.
'I shouldn't say I hope you win, because they will accuse me of sticking my nose into Nicaraguan internal affairs,' Chávez jokes with Ortega at one point. 'But I hope you win!' However, it is not Nicaragua's elections in November Chávez has on his mind but Venezuela's presidential elections the following month. For that reason, he is showing off the quality of food he is providing for the poor, who he can reasonably expect to keep him in power. 'Mmm ... smell that,' says the President, opening a bottle of ketchup. 'Mmmm!' Ortega affirms when the bottle is shoved under his nose.
A packet of coffee is presented next. 'We should put on the packet that it is 100 per cent Venezuelan,' says Chávez. 'We are going to keep increasing production every year. First for national consumption, then we are going to do something else. Maybe start exporting. Dunno where...'
The whirlwind of words continues. Chávez talks to checkout staff . He puts his hand on a woman's arm as she explains that she has just completed her high school degree in one of the special schools Chávez has set up. 'In July, 30,000 people are going to graduate,' Chávez tells her. 'Then you are going to go to a college of further education. Then you'll study nursing...' He greets and kisses other staff before returning to where he started, at his desk.
But there is another side to this touchy-feely President, friend of Venezuela's poor. That is the international revolutionary fi ebrand who talks about the 'coming war with the US' for which he has warned his people to prepare; the friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro; and the figure at the apex of the rapid left-wing swing of South
America. This is the man described by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as 'Hitler' and by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the 'most dangerous in the region' - a role that Chávez has gleefully and aggressively played up to, in turn calling Bush 'Mr Danger' and occasionally 'asshole'. (On Rice, Chávez has suggested 'her problem' is sexual frustration.)
The ability of Chávez to prick the US has been made possible not by a large and modern army, or weapons of mass destruction, or support for terror, but by the simple fact of America's large dependence on Venezuelan oil in the middle of an oil crisis. Chávez, a visceral opponent of the influence of America in a Latin America that, like his 19th-century predecessor Simón Bolívar, he would like to lead, has found his dangerous global stage.
As self-appointed champion against 'the murderer' Bush, he has acted as ringmaster to those who loathe America's First Man: film stars, musicians, unionists, statesmen and writers. Later this month he arrives in London where he will be entertained by Mayor Ken Livingstone, a long-time Chávez supporter who has accused the US of trying to undermine democracy in Venezuela. Chávez has constructed alliances with everyone the White House hates most - including the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Evo Morales, the left -wing Bolivian President and former coca farmers' leader. And Chávez has included Morales in his 'axis of good' with Castro in his struggle with the US.
In doing so, Chávez has plugged himself into a series of key international issues that have given him an influence way beyond Venezuela's normal status in world affairs. On issues as diverse as the anti-globalisation movement, Latin America's future political shape, oil, Iran, and even America's relationships with India and China, Chávez is there stirring it up.
At home, the people will tell you that all you need to know about the Presidente is on display in Aló Presidente. There he is: enthusiastic, verbose and sometimes staccato - the Castro of an era brought up on soap operas and reality TV. He grazes on ideas as they occur to him. Sometimes they run into the sand. He encourages and fires officials. He sketches the line of planned roads and jokes about his sex life. There are lengthy denunciations of the evils of capitalism and the US. He relates anecdotes from his life appropriate to the day's message. Sometimes he sings in a not unpleasant voice. But what keeps Venezuela's media and political classes glued to The Voice for hours on end is the knowledge that Chávez governs his country via his show. If it has not happened on Aló Presidente on Sunday, Venezuelans think, it has not really happened.
I start watching Aló Presidente near the ugly concrete centre of the capital, Caracas, in a fast food restaurant smelling of criollo, the national dish. One customer stands staring at Chávez on the overhead T V screen . Later he says proudly: 'That's my President, that is.' I recognise the same look later, when I watch more of the show in an apartment in a slum barrio. It is the expression worn by many of those poor and ordinary Venezuelans invited on to Chávez's show and it borders on adoration. It is also a look of deep familiarity. He may be President, the faces say, but he's also one of us.
On average, Chávez's voice is present in their lives for 40 hours a week in speeches, proclamations and media events, including Aló Presidente. His critics, largely in the middle class-led opposition, have wondered when he finds time to be President . The chavistas (Chávez's supporters) call his opponents escualidos - 'squalid-ones', after their efforts to depose him. They tried once with a farcical coup that lasted two days in 2002 and was defeated by street power when his supporters among the poor demanded to speak to Chávez: to hear from him that he had really 'resigned'. The escualidos tried again by way of the constitution, trying to force early elections with a recall referendum - a gambit that also failed.
Chávez's supporters have no doubts about how he spends his time. They are the main beneficiaries of his misiones, the multi-billion dollar programmes that have provided the Mercals and schools and universities for the poor, financial benefi ts and healthcare at the hands of 17,000 guest Cuban doctors housed in the poorest areas. It is a support that verges on religious devotion. I hear, but cannot confirm, that there are some who pray to images of Chávez. And nowhere is that devotion more strongly felt than in the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero (23 January ) where Chávez himself votes. This is a place of decrepit tower blocks and box housesthat hang precariously from the slopes of the hills surrounding the city. It is not just the danger of landslide that makes this a risky place. One housing block is known as the Seven Men and is home to the barrio's most dangerous gangsters. Across the barrio, huge colourful murals depict Chávez fl anked by the two key figures in the mythology of his revolution: Che Guevara and Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century Venezuelan 'liberator' of South America from Spanish colonial rule. It is to this slum that revolutionary tourists from around the world are taken by the chavistas to see Hugo's good works. For Chávez, like Ortega and the Sandinistas in the 1980s, has become a totem for the international left. They come to study for a few months at the 'Bolívarian' University, live in the barrios or volunteer for one of his projects before going home as apostles of his revolution.
Many visitors are led first into the presence of Lisandro Perez, better known by his nom de guerre of 'Mao', the chief of the municipality. 'Mao's' office sums up the postmodern complexities of Chávez's idea of '21st -century socialism'. The former high school teacher and left-wing guerrilla's walls are decorated with pictures of Chairman Mao, Che and Bolívar. There is a poster of Chávez too along with religious statuary and a wanted poster from 'Mao's days on the run.
Perez, 47, tells me he has been a rebel since the age of 12, imprisoned five times and tortured while in jail. As we talk, he reaches across to a tape recorder. I anticipate a revolutionary song, perhaps sung by Chávez . Instead it is the Beatles singing 'With a Little Help from My Friends'.
Chávez's Bolívarian revolution , as retold by 'Mao', is a mishmash of contradictory ideas. Perez says: 'Christ was the first and greatest communist,' that multiparty politics have had their day, but that the revolution is also democratic. If the opposition won in December's presidential elections the chavistas would respect that victory.
He claims that the movement does not want to export its revolution to other countries in Latin America and then concludes by saying that it does. 'In the phase that we are in, Hugo Chávez is very important because he has dared to set the agenda . ... Chávez is the absolute leader because in his role he has permitted the process to go forward. Political parties need to be abolished. We need mass organisations. People should direct the government. That's why Chávez says, "You the people should govern."' But the truth, as everybody knows, is that Chávez governs almost alone through a politics of improvisation. Venezuelans see it weekly on TV.
Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the Tal Cual newspaper and putative presidential candidate, describes Chávez (in an introduction to Hugo Chávez sin Uniforme, a biography published last year) as a latterday Zelig - forever changing and forever interposing himself in each scene in history. Other Chávez watchers suggest a different model: that of Argentina's great populist, Juan Perón, and his wife Evita. The authors of Hugo Chávez sin Uniforme - Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka - cite the President's own psychiatrist, who credited Chávez with a 'narcissistic personality'.
While both Marcano and Barrera Tyszka are critics of Chávez, they believe he should be given credit for putting poverty on the agenda. I meet the authors, who are husband and wife, in a cafe in Los Palos Grandes, not far from the huge square with its obelisk, typically the scene of opposition rallies. It is the polar opposite to the blocks and narrow alleyways of the barrios. Here air-conditioned restaurants serve chilled wine to ladies who lunch and busy young executives and lawyers.
Though middle-class themselves, Marcano and Barrera Tyszka place themselves in the rare, and little populated, centre of Venezuela's polarised political life. 'I think most of the time he simply looks and behaves in the way he wants to be perceived,' says Marcano. 'When Chávez is meeting businessmen he dresses like a businessman. If he goes to meet the poor he wears his red shirt open at the neck. He wants to be loved.'
But not loved by everyone of course. 'He has always had the necessity of an enemy both external and internal,' says Marcano. 'It is an old trick of his. He calls Bush a murderer and gets the attention of the world and captivates the left.' 'How can you be a big hero,' interjects Barrera Tyszka, 'in the mould of Bolívar or Guevara, without an enemy?' Marcano believes, moreover, that beyond the theatrics there is a real Chávez who remains as yet unseen and untested. 'I have always said that we will get to knowthe real Chávez only when he stops being popular... What will he do then?'
That is the big question. His bellicose rhetoric in opposition to the US has seen an increase from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of Venezuelans who believe the US will eventually invade. And fear is useful. Citing the US threat, Chávez is militarising Venezuelan society, raising a new territorial guard, which can be seen assiduously training in Venezuela's public spaces.
What does Chávez's revolution stand for? Is it Marxist or religious in its inspiration? Does it represent a new economics, as he insists, or is it dependent on the old capitalism he claims to despise? Then there is Chávez himself. Is he democratic or authoritarian? Above all, where does the rhetoric of his struggle with the US, with its threats, its risky alliances and ominous warnings of invasions and 1,000-year resistance wars, begin and end? Above all, what is real, and what theatrical performance? Certainly his left-wing credentials are not in doubt. Born in 1953 of mixed Amerindian, African and Spanish descent (his parents were schoolteachers in Sabineta), Chávez came from the group to whom he now appeals: the poor. As a boy he was sent to live with his grandmother, but it was the army - which he joined at 17 - that moulded him, giving him the education that would otherwise have been unavailable. And it was as a young officer that Chávez first developed his
ideas about 'Bolívarianism' that later were forged into his Revolutionary Bolívarian Movement-200.
It was founded on a combination of the romantic ideals of South America's anti-colonial struggles and a strong sense of social justice. It found its expression amid the economic stagnation and collapse of party politics in the late 1980s, culminating in a failed neo-liberal experiment that made Venezuela's poor more impoverished.
The scene was set, in 1992, for an attempted coup by Chávez and his supporters in the military. It ran into the ground when the unit commanded by Chávez failed to seize the initiative in the capital. To avoid further bloodshed, the captured Chávez was put on TV. What happened next was to launch his career as a popular leader.
The handsome and media-friendly young officer asked his soldiers to stand down, famously telling the country that he had failed 'por ahora' - for now. And, as Chávez the failed golpista was jailed, Chávez the democrat was born. The two characters have never been reconciled.
As a democrat, Chávez has won election after election largely fair and square since his first campaign in 1998. Thereare few egregious human rights abuses, little serious repression and, despite a new media law, Venezuela enjoys a lively and usually critical press.
If the middle class-led opposition has failed to remove him democratically it is not because of widespread skulduggery; it is because its movement is fragmented and represents, for all its claims to the contrary, a minority . But there is another prism through which Chávez's democratic credentials look more dubious. On top of his leadership of the failed coup, and his relationships with left -wing revolutionary guerrillas, there is the fact that in his seven years in power he has consolidated personal control over all of Venezuela's institutions.
The army answers to Chávez, as does the central bank, the treasury and the state oil-company PDVSA, which provides the vast bulk of Venezuela's revenue as the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. In 2002, when many members of the 19,000-strong company joined a lock-out strike in support of calling early elections to oust him, he fired them all, replacing them with chavistas. He has packed the judiciary with his supporters and rewritten the constitution to suit his ends. Most worryingly, he has talked about finessing the constitution to enable him to stay in office until 2030.
And it is not just because of his political inclinations that Chávez appears to be being pulled in contrary directions - between the authoritarianism of the classic South American caudillo (strongman) and democrat. His personality too appears to be elusive and, say observers, deeply unpredictable.
For a dictator in the making, as his opponents claim he is, he may have the rhetoric and perhaps some of the inclinations of a caudillo, but his record in confrontation has been more mixed. When Chávez began reallocating land from major landowners to the poor , whom he had encouraged to squat, it looked like the end for Venezuela's major estates - the latifundios - including the British-owned Vesty. But Chávez stopped short. For now the policy is one of negotiation, allowing the big businesses to keep some land in exchange for giving up a little. Then there was the confrontation with the middle classes, which resulted in the names of anyone who had signed a petition for a referendum demanding Chávez's recall (popularly known as la lista) being published by a prominent Chávez supporter. This so-called 'Tascón list' was subsequently used to deny signatories government jobs and contracts. It looked like an old-fashioned purge.
On the steep, grassy banks of the busy autopista linking Caracas and the coast, I meet a victim of the Tascón list at an opposition demonstration. They are a strange group, mostly older and welldressed professionals and well-to-do Caracas housewives, some of them in Tshirts proclaiming their allegiance to the 'National Commando of the Resistance'. It is not a formation, you imagine, that scares Chávez.
Among them is Rodello Gonzales Martinez, 55, a former commercial pilot who had signed la lista in 2003-04. 'When I went to reapply for my licence and medical, nothing happened for a long time. I didn't get a reply,' he says. 'When I finally went to the Ministry of Transportation in person the girl asked for my ID. She typed in my name and said: "You're on the list" and ripped up my application in front of my face.'
It is a familiar story, although whether it is as widespread as the opposition claims is impossible to tell. Again Chávez backed down, publicly calling on his supporters to stop using the list to punish escualidos - one of a series of measures to court the middle classes.
Most telling , there is evidence that, despite his tough language with the US, and a flurry of 'deals' to sell his oil elsewhere, he has done little to restructure Venezuela's oil business and steer it away from the convenient flow of America's billions that are paying for his revolution.
It is contradictory, like so much in the Bolívarian Revolution. Yet Alberto Garrido, one of Venezuela's most respected political analysts, believes it is possible to reconcile the two Chávezes. 'Chávez has threatened to blow up his own oil installations in the event of an American invasion. You can consider it rhetoric, but it is not really that. He is intent on destroying imperialism. By that he means the "empire of the US". His discourse doesn't include Europe. It is very localised. But while the reality is Latin America's independence from US influence, the reality is changeable. Chávez is tactically pragmatic, but strategically obsessive. Since he is pragmatic, he will continue selling oil to the US and resist pressure from more radical sectors of his movement to stop.
'What needs to be understood is that his main interest is geopolitical. Everything that can be seen as ambiguous needs to be recognised as the fact he is leading a transitional phase. He will allow the US to keep paying for his oil to strengthen his project. His project - he has said it himself - will be 20-30 years in the making.'
It is the message that is visible on children's singlets being sold by a street vendor at a chavista rally. Beneath screenprinted images of Chávez's face the legend reads: 2030. But what you realise, walking with these young people through Caracas's dirty streets behind lorries blasting out music and bands of drummers, is that, for all the contradictions of his revolution, Chávez has harnessed the energy of the impoverished majority. The noisy good humour of the thousands who march, the dynamism, is in stark contrast to a rival rally called by the opposition. The chavistas march and sing and fill the capital's streets, the middle classes opt to lie down and play dead .
It is hot and humid in Caracas: the rainy season has yet to come. It is a national holiday and so those who can afford it have driven to the beaches. The alternative is the Magic Mountain, an amusement park in the foothills of the Andes, a cable car ride above the capital. It is not cheap, so most of those queuing for the ride up above the forested slopes are middle class . They stroll along paths above a plunging valley filled with the weekend villas of the wealthy. Inside its alpine-themed restaurant, Juan Garcia, an electrical engineer, is eating a picnic with his two children.
'We like to come when it's cool,' says Juan, 43, a fierce opponent of Chávez. 'I am completely against him. He is pushing our country into something that it's not. The social struggle that he talks about among Venezuela's classes - before he came it did not exist. He has strengthened the hate between the poor and the rich. He gives the impression that if they follow him they can all wear white clothes and drive nice cars. Unfortunately I don't think that it is going to stop. Once the idea has been sold there is no end to it.'
Not everyone on the Magic Mountain agrees. Vanessa Aular, a student and a single mother, has taken her four-yearold son Antoine Escobar up the cable car for a treat. An admirer of Chávez, Vanessa was sent to Cuba on a government scheme to train as a social worker. 'Where I have really benefited,' she says, 'is with my son. He needed to have his tonsils out, which would have been difficult for us before Chávez. Our neighbours have got housing benefi t for the first time and a neighbour is going to Cuba for an eye operation.'
Chávez's popularity is not, as the fragmenting opposition desperately hopes, built on a fake premise. What Venezuela's underclasses recognise is that he is no forgery.
They see it in his dark skin, his poor background and in his manners. His aspirations are also theirs: the poor boy who joined the army in the hope of becoming a baseball star, who instead got himself the kind of education he is now offering to them. He is the child from the shack who rose to the stuccoed grandeur of the Miraflores Palace.
This resonates with his core constituency. For the poor, who have benefited from his seven years in power, democracy means social inclusion - not who controls the institutions that in Venezuela have often been either weak or hopelessly corrupt.
At present that social inclusion means Chávez's misiones, which like the Mercals alleviate poverty, offering free and widespread healthcare, provided by 17,000 Cuban doctors, access to education, housing titles, land ownership and cheap start-up loans for businesses. It is on these schemes - paid for by the oil receipts of the past two years - that Chávez's popularity is based. And it is not just in Venezuela. Chávez spends his billions elsewhere in the region. He buys debt from neighbouring countries, funds projects, supports parties in the left's new rise to power in Latin America. It is this that is the real source of friction with the US - that a revolutionary regime, with deep pockets filled with its own dollars, is undermining US policy, not least in fronting the resistance to the creation of the neo-liberal Free Trade Area of the Americas. Chávez's message, as in the barrios, is social justice. But is that social justice policy working?
I went to the barrio of Petare, without the presence of chavista minders, where people were more free to talk, to try to find out. It is a place not much different from the 23 de Enero barrio - though it lacks the high-rises. The hairdressing salon where Miriam Josefina Mejillas, 34, works is open to the street. She shops in the local Mercal and gets free medical treatment for her family from the Cuban doctors. She is defensive about criticism of Chávez, although she recognises the country's deep and lasting problems.
Mostly, however, she is grateful. 'I don't think everything in this country is his fault. He is a human being just like us. There are lots of crises but they are not his fault.
There are all these people who say because of Chávez they don't have work. But there are people around him who are traitors to him.' It is a familiar refrain among Chávez'sleast well-off supporters . If there are faults with the Bolívarian Revolution, they say, it is only because the President is surrounded by bad advisers and is not hearing about their problems. If he knew, they argue, he would intervene.
There may be some truth in this. In a movement largely suspicious of the technocrats and political classes who once ran the country, there is a shortage of expertise.
'Chávez has said in his own words that the three enemies of his revolution are corruption, inefficiency and bureaucracy,' says Alberto Garrido. 'He also criticises nepotism. The management of this state is absolutely terrible. He trusts a small group of allies unconditionally.
'Chávez is still in the "charismatic phase" where he is above good and bad for his people and he has cleverly separated himself from the image of inefficiency and corruption of his government. But that cannot be eternal. If he does not quickly succeed in restructuring the country's problems, people will start losing hope in him.
That is his black spot. If he doesn't stop that mismanagement it will stop him.' While Chávez has undertaken a remarkable intervention on the level of primary assistance, many even among those who support him are concerned that, if and when oil prices drop from their record levels, there will be little left to see of his revolution. One day theCuban doctors, who have transformed primary healthcare, will go home. While Chávez has been busy educating a few thousand Venezuelan doctors, all his billions of oil money have not rebuilt the decrepit hospitals.
The Mercals are dependent on oil largesse and there is evidence that the importing of cheaper food is undermining the fragile farming and agriculture sectors. While the Bolívarian schools and universities have transformed the literacy of the poor, the biggest problem is highlighted by their adult graduates. Few new jobs have been created by the revolution, which has done little to diversify the economy.
The chavistas say that this is missing the point. Chávez's vision is not about outdated Western political and economic models; it is about creating revolutionary 'fusion' and breaking new ground. In Latin America, at least, his example is influential most notably with Bolivia's Evo Morales. Just last week Morales nationalised his gas industry, sending in troops to secure production and telling foreign companies to leave if they did not comply.
Amid all the threats of economic meltdown and utopian promises, it is Lopez Maya who seems to present the most honest assessment of the likely prospects.
'Venezuela has a lot of money because of oil,' she says. 'But in two years the prospects could be very different. It is very difficult to assess the performance of the government. In the past, when the oil price has dropped the defects of our government strategy have emerged. Now the question is: is Chávez doing a good job or is it just the same again? '
Hugo's there: A presidential life
Born 28 July 1954.
Education Graduated at 17 with science degree from Daniel Florencio O'Leary School in Barinas, masters in military science and engineering by the Venezuelan
Academy of Military Sciences in 1975. Also studied political science at Simon Bolivar University.
Family Two daughters and a son by his first marriage; a daughter by his second marriage to Marisabel Rodriguez de Chavez, a journalist, from whom he is now separated.