Early in 2006, while researching a magazine about Venezuela*, I was invited to dinner at a lovely house in a very pleasant neighbourhood of Caracas. My host was anxious that I should not be fooled by government propaganda. Passing journalists and intellectuals from the North were, she felt, rather vulnerable to it.
Among the other guests were the daughters of two former Presidents, a prominent academic and someone who had been big in oil. All were agreed, for a variety of reasons but with the same visceral hatred of President Hugo Chávez, that he was intent on installing a dictatorship in Venezuela, if he had not done so already. My host reserved special contempt for the way elections were being rigged, the secrecy of the ballot abused.
The moment finally came when she turned to me and asked what I thought. A visiting journalist and dinner guest is not in the best position to challenge the testimony of people who actually live in a place. So I took refuge behind a question of my own. If Chávez was so powerful, I asked, how come the opposition was so weak?
Answer came there none – at least, none that made much sense to me or was articulated with the same relentless conviction.
What I was really after in Venezuela, however, was some idea of what the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ meant to your average Venezuelan. Eventually I wrote in the magazine that while Chávez was far from perfect, Venezuelans were probably better off with him than they would have been with the opposition. Popular support for Chávez seemed to me, in the circumstances, quite logical. Besides, all this sterile fixation on the person of Chávez himself - whether Saviour or Satan - missed the essential point. Had daily life for the majority of Venezuelans improved, and if so in what way?
A year or so later and events have duly moved on. In December 2006 Chávez won his third presidential term, if not quite by the landslide he had demanded, then with a very comfortable majority indeed.
Since then he has done a number of rather odd things. He has said that he wants to amend the Constitution so that he can run for re-election again – maybe indefinitely. He has ordered the maze of parties supporting him to merge into one. He has obliged the National Assembly – entirely composed of his supporters – to grant him the power to rule by decree, if only for 18 months and specifically to carry out a series of nationalizations.
Unsurprisingly, the spectre of Chávez as Satan has been revived. No doubt my host at that dinner feels that her views have been vindicated by – among other things - the elevation of Jorge Rodriguez Gomez, who used to head up the supposedly independent Electoral Commission, to the position of Vice-President. There are even rumblings of discontent from former Chávez loyalists.
Unsurprisingly, too, more durable chavistas have been hard at work insisting that all this is a figment, trotted out as it has been at regular intervals, and in much the same form, ever since Chávez first became President. He has ruled by decree before, without unduly dictatorial results. The arcane, alien structures of liberal democracy in Venezuela are simply not up to the urgent task of transforming the lives of the Venezuelan people. Chávez has a democratic mandate and he must act decisively to give it substance. Besides, Venezuela has precious few lessons in democracy to learn from the likes of Bush or Blair.
Well, probably not. But Chávez has been in power for just about as long as Blair. There comes a moment when the ineptitude of the opposition is no substitute for a coherent proposition of your own. If the Bolivarian Revolution is now to rely more heavily than ever upon the whims of Hugo Chávez himself, then it is surely in deep trouble.
The fact that he has lead public celebrations on every anniversary of his failed military coup in 1992 has never encouraged confidence in his democratic convictions. The progressive militarization of Venezuelan society, on which he places great emphasis, eventually becomes less of a wise precaution against a very real threat of invasion than an offshoot of the militarization of US society, around which Chávez and Bush can dance an endless tango, to mutual political advantage at home.
Seen from the North, the fondness Chávez now has for the term ‘socialism’, ‘Bolivarian’ though it may also be, appears rather quaint. That could say more about those of us who struggle to find a use for the word than it does about Chávez. Nonetheless, socialism has to mean more than spraying oil money from on high over schools, clinics and drains, or scattering co-operatives around the workplace, and expecting a vote for Hugo Chávez from time to time in return. It must also establish effective, routine forms of democratic expression, control and accountability.
On this, all Chávez has had to offer so far is the unashamedly populist notion of a ‘government of the streets’, which still means whatever he wants it to mean. Try talking to anyone in the barrios of Caracas about what would happen if Chávez were ever to be hit by a bus; promptly find yourself suspected of advocating his assassination - and you can sense what he might have in mind.
But keep talking and you begin to perceive something rather different. Their pride in what they have achieved so far – which is truly admirable - is in good measure a form of pride in themselves, rather than Chávez. After a while, they begin to hint that if he were to betray them they would get rid of him.
Quite how they might ever do this is now a moot point. Of course they know that they would never have made much headway without resources from the government, or help from Cuban doctors and teachers. But the schools and the clinics, the cut-price food shops and the clean water supplies, the sturdier and more secure homes, the adult literacy classes and the employment schemes, didn’t create themselves. They had to be organized and built. For years, decades before Chávez, these communities had been attempting to do just that.
What made Chávez different was that he didn’t try to stop them. He offered a modicum of respect, encouragement and practical support. No-one else in the Venezuelan political firmament has offered that, except as what they habitually seem to think of as some sort of electoral bribe.
Political guesswork suggests to me now, however, that this means of giving substance to the Bolivarian Revolution has reached the end of its useful life – that, for want of knowing where else to turn, Chávez has turned towards the more baleful traditions of Latin America, with a sharp eye on the place in history being vacated by his ailing friend, Fidel Castro. Before too long, I fear, the Venezuelan people may well come to find that it is Chávez – or opportunists in the subservient chavista hierarchy - who stands in their way.
My guess is that what many Venezuelans, and many millions of other Latin Americans, may really be after is not so much the fossilized political power – duly fuelled by fossils – still wielded by Chávez, as the new growth on which light can only fall when the decaying, overshadowing forest giants tumble.
Perhaps they need Chávez less than they imagine.
* NI 390, June 2006
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