Revolution in Venezuela

Long ignored by political analysts and academics alike, Venezuela was, as this article by a leading authority on Latin America shows, one of the first countries to reject the neo-liberal agenda imposed on the continent. More than a decade after the mass uprising in Caracas against this agenda (the ‘Caracazo’), the country, under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez, is attempting to forge radical reforms to chart an alternative.

Richard Gott

A SLOW-BURNING revolution is underway today in Venezuela, to the surprise of both the supporters and the opponents of President Hugo Chavez. The revolution is not the work of the charismatic colonel himself - he is just the visible and vocal tip of the iceberg - but the result of the political stupidity of the opposition to his government and the unusual combativity of the Venezuelan underclass. This drama may yet end in tragedy, and the sight of the president’s bodyguards - half-a-dozen seven-foot-high black security officers equipped with the latest technology who stand alertly behind him at all public appearances - is a chilling reminder that Latin American politics are still conducted in the shadow of the gun. Political assassination is always a possibility. But disasters aside, Venezuela’s revolutionary course is now well established, and Latin America is witnessing the most extraordinary and unusual political process since the Cuban Revolution nearly half a century ago.

Forget Chile and Nicaragua. Salvador Allende in the 1970s was at heart a skilful bourgeois politician, not a revolutionary. He once told me, before he became president, that if he were to start a guerrilla movement in the mountains of the Chilean Andes, the president of the time would have sent out an ambulance to rescue him from frostbite. The Sandinistas in the 1980s made a good initial stab at organising a revolution, but coming from a small country with a withered political culture, they never had much chance of resisting the inevitable American counter-attack.

The Venezuelan experience is very different, and unexpected. An oil-rich country with an economic weight far beyond the present capacity of its impoverished population of 24 million to generate by other means, Venezuela has always seemed an improbable candidate for revolution (though it spawned an active Castroite guerrilla movement in the 1960s). With the most Americanised middle-class in Latin America, and an underclass (two-thirds of the population) seemingly crushed in perpetuity by hunger and poverty, Venezuela had virtually disappeared from the map during the last three decades. It aroused no external interest, it was never a popular diplomatic posting, and foreign academics specialising in Latin America had long disregarded its history and politics. Few serious studies of the country have been published in recent years.

Yet at a time when few outsiders were taking much notice of events in Latin America - during the decade after the end of the Cold War - Venezuela suddenly emerged at the front of the field. It was the first country in Latin America to suffer from serious and debilitating government corruption, the first to react violently against externally-imposed policies of neo-liberalism and the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’, and the first to experiment with an entirely fresh and original programme of anti-globalisation. Contemporary politics in Venezuela begin with the ‘Caracazo’ of 1989, an explosion of political rage by the underclass in Caracas (and some other cities) against a neo-liberal programme imposed by a once-popular president (Carlos Andres Perez), who had just been elected to do something entirely different. For two days the city degenerated into violence of a kind not seen in Venezuela since the 19th century, sparked off by an increase in bus fares but reflecting a much wider political discontent. A thousand people, perhaps more, were killed in the subsequent repression by the armed forces.

This event, it can now be recognised, was as important for Latin America as the fall of the Berlin Wall (which took place later that year) was for Europe. It marked the first occasion when the neo-liberal agenda being imposed on the continent was dramatically rejected by a popular uprising. Comparable rebellions occurred subsequently in several other countries of the continent, but Venezuela was there first.

Latin America is now witnessing a crisis of neo-liberalism all over the continent, with scenes of mounting hostility to the Washington-imposed economic strategies in almost every country. In Brazil in January a new leftist president took office, Luiz Inacio da Silva (Lula), with a long track record of hostility to globalisation and neo-liberalism. In Bolivia in February the businessman-president had to be rescued from his palace in La Paz by an ambulance, as the city was given over to rioters protesting at the imposition of fresh taxes. A striking police force confronted armed soldiers, while the people poured down from the hills to trash the American fast-food outlets and the supermarkets.

Three years ago in Ecuador, there was a similar story. At the start of the year 2000, an alliance of indigenous peoples and radical young officers brought down the neo-liberal government that had dollarised the currency. The radical military leader of the time, Lœcio Gutierrez, is now the elected president, taking office in the same month as Lula.

In Argentina, too, there have been unprecedented scenes of popular revolt, in which even the middle class has been mobilised. The sober citizens of Buenos Aires have been seen banging on the doors of defaulting banks. The underclass has been active all over the country in the past 18 months, and elections in April, with a dour cast of political has-beens competing for the presidency with no popular support, are unlikely to put an end to the existing political vacuum.

In Colombia, the civil war that has been waged on and off since the 1950s is still very much alive, made worse by the current American military intervention. Much of the country is out of the control of the central government, and has been so for most of the past 500 years.

Chavez takes centrestage

Yet Venezuela is at the centre of the storm. When Hugo Chavez was first elected as president, in December 1998, the country had already been in a state of prolonged crisis for many years. The country was mired in corruption, and the oil wealth had virtually disappeared. Successive programmes of economic neo-liberalism had failed, leading to riots in 1989, attempted coups in 1992, the impeachment of the former president in 1993, the collapse of the banks, and the implosion of the once-powerful political parties.

Chavez appeared as the popular choice, and many prominent figures, despairing of the old politics, jumped onto his bandwagon. They hoped that he would not be too radical, or maybe they believed that they could influence him. They were destined to be disappointed.

I have met President Chavez on several occasions, both in Venezuela and at moments during his foreign visits to London and Paris, and most recently in Porto Alegre in Brazil. I have interviewed him at length, and seen him close up during his travels around the country. Now in his late 40s, he comes from the provinces of Venezuela, and is the son of two schoolteachers, inheriting their skills. He was a brilliant and popular lecturer at the war college in Caracas, and he still has the didactic manner of a born teacher. He is a spellbinding orator. He has the physical characteristics of a typical Venezuelan mestizo, with Black and Indian features. He is a friendly and approachable man, always with a welcoming smile, and blessed with great capacity to put people at their ease.

Chavez is a genuinely original figure in Latin America. He is not a Marxist like Allende, nor a populist like Peron. He is a radical left-wing nationalist, closer in his internationalist vision to Fidel Castro than to any other Latin American figure. It is not possible to understand his ideology without referring to the characters from Venezuela’s history that he draws on most frequently when explaining the roots of his ideology.

First there is Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of Latin America. You can’t escape from Bolivar in Venezuela. He is everywhere. His statue is in every town square, his portrait in every schoolroom and government office. He was a Venezuelan who freed Venezuela from Spanish rule, and then went on to liberate Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Bolivia is named after him. He was more successful as soldier than as politician, and he died in exile, saying, famously, that ‘I have ploughed the sea’. But he was a highly intelligent and visionary figure, progressive for his time. Chavez knows his writings backwards - and his poems - and he consciously follows his strategic thinking. Like Bolivar, Chavez is also an internationalist, with a clear vision of Venezuela’s role on the world stage. Like Castro, Chavez believes in Latin America’s need to unite.

The second exemplary figure in the Chavez pantheon is Sim-n Rodriguez. A figure almost unknown in the rest of the world, Rodriguez was one of the most interesting Latin American thinkers of the early 19th century, a pioneer of educational reform and anti-racism. He was Bolivar’s teacher and close friend. ‘I love this man madly,’ Bolivar once wrote. ‘He is a genius.’ Rodriguez was a teacher, influenced by Rousseau and Daniel Defoe. (He was so impressed by Robinson Crusoe that when he went into exile he called himself Simon Robinson.) He set up schools in Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador, and he left many philosophical writings.

From the vantage point of Latin America in the 21st century, he said two important things. He argued that Spanish America was ‘an original construct’ and that it would be necessary for its rulers ‘to invent original institutions and forms of government’. Otherwise, he said, ‘we shall make mistakes’. Latin America could not rely on imported models.

He also argued for the continent to be colonised ‘with its own inhabitants’. He believed that if this did not happen, the ruling elites would bring in fresh white settlers from Europe - who would slaughter the local inhabitants. (This, of course, is exactly what happened, with more of the indigenous population of Latin America being killed by European newcomers in the 19th century after independence than during the three centuries of Spanish rule.) Rodriguez wanted all the children of Indians and Blacks and Spanish to be brought up in the same schoolroom - which led to most of his schools being closed down by the racist ruling elites of the time. Like most of Latin America, Venezuela is a country deeply imbued with racism, and the hostility to the ideas of Rodriguez survives to this day. Much of the antipathy towards Chavez from the (largely white) middle class of Caracas results from his unfashionable championing of the black and mestizo underclass.

The third figure that Chavez has resurrected from the history of Venezuela in the 19th century is Ezequiel Zamora, a leader unknown in Latin America, but once an important radical hero in Venezuela. He fought as a peasant leader against the landlords in the federalist wars of the 1850s, organising what he called the ‘Army of the Sovereign People’. His slogan, often repeated by Chavez, was horror a la oligarquia - hatred of the oligarchy. One of Zamora’s demands, revolutionary at the time, was that ‘10 milking cows should be farmed out by the landowners on common land, to provide free milk each day to the homes of the poor.’ 

A further interesting characteristic of Zamora was his tendency to wear two hats at the same time, a military cap and a civilian hat, to exemplify the alliance between the people and the army. Chavez is a military officer by origin, and one of his aims is to provide a new (and non-repressive) role for the armed forces in the development of the country.

The important point about these three figures, recovered from history by Chavez, is that they are the most interesting and radical figures in the popular history of Venezuela - and not ones usually approved of by the traditional ruling class. So although Chavez is not a typical 20th century leftist, he is certainly a very radical nationalist. As such, he is very hostile to the influence of the United States in Latin America, and hostile to the colonial techniques of economic neo-liberalism.

Chavez’s first economics tutor was Jorge Giordani, an adviser to the left-wing party, Movement towards Socialism, who became the planning minister during Chavez’s first two years in government. Giordani was an advocate of the old-fashioned policies of the UN Commission for Latin America in the 1960s: economic nationalism, import substitution, the encouragement of the national bourgeoisie, and an ambition to keep foreign capital under tight control. Land reform, and the attempt to make the country self-sufficient in food, were also part of this programme.

A vital part of the Chavez programme was to revive OPEC, the organisation of oil producers and exporters, founded many years ago by Venezuela. If OPEC could agree to cut production, a stable and fair international oil price could be secured. During his first year in office, in 1999, Chavez toured all the capitals of OPEC, visiting Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, and Colonel Gadafy in Libya. He also visited Iran and the Gulf states. He held an OPEC heads of state meeting in Caracas in 2001, and managed to persuade everyone to cut production, and to get the price up. He put in his own man, Ali Rodriguez, once a guerrilla fighter in the 1960s, as the head of OPEC.

A second ambition (though this came much later) was to reform the state oil company, sometimes regarded as ‘a state within the state’. Petroleos de Venezuela had been nationalised in the 1970s, but its leadership had lived and worked more in the international oil world than in Venezuela. It invested its profits abroad, to the detriment of the country that was supposed to benefit from the oil wealth.

When Chavez first became president, his rhetoric was radical, but he moved cautiously. There were no revolutionary proclamations. His first task was to organise the drafting of a fresh constitution, an historic demand made by all parties over many years. Elections were held to a constituent assembly, the new constitution was written, and ratified by a referendum. Some people grumbled, but it was all done very correctly.

Then at the end of the year 2001, after two years in power, Chavez produced a whole series of new laws (under the terms of the new constitution) that gave the true flavour of his revolutionary zeal. Among them was a land reform; another involved changes in the organisation of the state oil company.

For the first time, an embryonic opposition began to appear, people who began to realise that they no longer had any chance of applying the brakes on the Chavez government. Political figures from the past, and wealthy businessmen, began talking to senior officers and planning for a coup d’etat.

The opposition at this early stage had four components. One was Fedecameras, the chamber of commerce, a powerful lobby that grouped the bulk of the country’s industrial and commercial elite. Another was the old trade union movement that had formerly been a part of Accion Democratica, the principal ruling party since the 1960s. A third was the media, with almost all the Caracas newspapers and television channels owned by half a dozen influential media barons. And lastly, the opposition was relying on conservative sectors of the armed forces to stage a coup.

The opposition’s initial plan was to destabilise the government through street demonstrations and strikes, and campaigns in the media. These were designed to create a climate in which the military would act to overthrow Chavez - the model was similar to that employed in Chile in 1973.

This was the scenario staged in April 2002, when the opposition’s first attempt at a coup d’etat took place. For 48 hours a puppet president was put in place (the head of Fedecameras), the new constitution was annulled, and the parliament closed down. The coup was defeated by loyal officers and by a mobilisation of the underclass in the shanty-towns.

Chavez returned to the presidential palace, and promised conciliation. He halted the reforms to the oil company, changed his controversial economic team, and took no action against those who had plotted the coup. The opposition read this as political weakness, and soon it had started plotting again. It launched an indefinite strike at the beginning of December 2002.

Yet in spite of the triumphalism of the newspaper reports at the time (reflected in the international coverage), the opposition was much weaker than it had imagined. Although the conservative officers who had plotted the April coup had not been put on trial, they had been discharged from the armed forces. They no longer had command of troops. Their capacity to stage a coup had been severely impaired.

At the same time, the great mass of the people were now mobilised behind Chavez. There was a change in the popular mood. They had seen the true face of the Pinochet-style opposition in April. Previously, they had been luke-warm about Chavez. Now, they understood that they had a president that it was necessary to defend. For every demonstration by the opposition, the ‘chavistas’, as they came to be called, staged counter-demonstrations.

A notable absentee from the opposition line-up was the United States. The Americans had burnt their fingers by prematurely recognising the coup in April. In December they had preoccupations elsewhere. The Middle East crisis took precedence over Latin America.

The strikes dragged on through the Christmas period with no break-through, and by the middle of January it was clear that Chavez had triumphed. He now took action on every front, doing what perhaps he should have done after the previous coup attempt in April. The head of Fedecameras was arrested on charges of treason, and the union boss in charge of the strikes was also charged, though he remained in hiding. Legal action was taken against the television companies and the newspaper editors who supported the coup.

At the same time, plans were made to give people a real stake in the revolution. Hundreds of thousands of land titles were handed out, in shanty-towns as well as in the countryside, while the reforms in the state oil company are now going ahead, with the permanent sacking of the old guard executives who had organised the strike.

Chavez had triumphed through superior strategy, but also as a result of the stupidity of the opposition, who scored a whole series of own goals. Many problems lie ahead, including the American war on Iraq. One of the many aims of that war is to secure the demise of OPEC - and to see an end to Chavez’s hopes of developing Venezuela with the extra income derived from a fair and adequate oil price. Yet Chavez is now on course to deliver the most radical change in Latin America since the Cuban Revolution of 1959.u

Richard Gott, formerly a correspondent of the Guardian, is the author of In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, published by Verso.