‘Venezuela is a ticking time bomb,’ said Hugo Chávez Frias when he was elected President of Venezuela by a landslide in December 1998, ‘and I have been elected to defuse it.’
At the time, no-one disputed the diagnosis. Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, was an impoverished nation where 80 per cent of the people are unable to afford basic foodstuffs. The country’s democratic institutions had run out of steam years earlier - the ‘final straw’ was the Caracazo in February 1989, when hundreds of civilians in the capital, Caracas, were massacred by troops as they protested the imposition of an austerity package by the International Monetary Fund.
Chávez, a former paratrooper, had tried to take power once before. Influenced by left-wing guerrillas who had infiltrated the armed forces, in February 1992 he launched a military rebellion. Quickly outmanoeuvred, he was given one minute on television to urge his companions around the country to surrender - an appearance that made him a household name.
The imprisoned Chávez won a reprieve in 1994 and began organizing his Bolivarian Movement, inspired by 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Chávez promised an agrarian revolution which would distribute idle land to small farmers and stimulate agricultural production. He offered to resettle urban squatters, reversing a rural-urban drift that has left 90 per cent of the country’s 24 million people living on just 15 per cent of national territory. He also pledged to double education and health spending and take the army out of the barracks to repair roads and hospitals.
Venezuela has a long tradition of environmental protection, beginning with Simon Bolivar, who issued a reforestation edict in 1826. Once in power, Chávez expanded the responsibilities of the Environment Ministry, giving unprecedented investigative powers over the oil industry, previously considered an untouchable cash cow. The concept of environmental rights has been linked to the broader issue of social reform.
‘You cannot ask a hungry person to respect the environment,’ says acting Environment Minister, Alejandro Hitcher. ‘That person will always think first of their own survival.’
The new Bolivarian Constitution contains 350 articles covering every aspect of social organization. It proclaims the state’s duty to provide a ‘healthy, clean environment’ for all citizens. The Government has identified three rural-development zones which are now in the midst of a speedy construction process. Bridges, railways and hydroelectric plants are preparing the ground for a new population, connected to ports, markets and cities.
The new constitution was approved in December 1999 by 71 per cent of voters - but with abstentions rising to 54 per cent. The breakdown of results revealed a consistent majority ‘yes’ vote in poor districts and a parallel ‘no’ vote in wealthy neighbourhoods.
The vote coincided with freak rains which caused mudslides that buried entire neighbourhoods, killing 30,000 people and leaving a further 200,000 people homeless. On a visit to the affected areas I helped deliver emergency supplies with a group of volunteers, identified by the trademark red beret worn by Chávez. There was a renewed community spirit inspired by a year of national dialogue over the future direction of the country. In parks, bus queues, shops and bars, citizens argued long and loud over the changes. Hundreds of flood victims were afraid to return to their precarious homes and several families asked me to pass on messages to the President requesting a move to the countryside.
Chávez is a charismatic but impatient leader. After his election he demanded the right to hire and fire judges and legislators who opposed his plans. The displaced authorities resisted and the legal stalemate spilled on to the street in September 1999. Chávez supporters clashed with the opposition, beginning a pattern of confrontation that continues today.
The discredited political parties recycled themselves as ‘civil society’, forming the ‘Democratic Co-ordinator’, a loose alliance of anti-Chávez interests. The nation’s private media and business leaders launched an aggressive campaign to sabotage Chávez’s political project before it even got off the ground.
In April 2002 the opposition staged a huge rally which ended in confusion, as snipers and police shot 19 people dead. The hostile media immediately blamed Chávez for the killings, even though most of the victims were Chávez supporters - I spent a month investigating the circumstances of each death, talking to relatives and witnesses from both sides, so I know this to be the case. The street violence prompted a brief coup which was overturned by a civilian insurrection aided by loyal army troops, forcing coup plotters to abandon the presidential palace.
Failure did nothing to dishearten the opposition, who waited for the dust to settle and then embarked on a national strike last December, paralysing almost all economic activity. The employers’ federation, Fedecamaras, paid workers to participate - a remarkable turnaround in a region where trade unionists are imprisoned and shot for exercising the same rights.
The strike failed to unseat Chávez but it succeeded in wrecking the economy, with oil production reduced to a third. It is now estimated that oil revenues this year will barely cover external-debt repayments, forcing the Government to cut back on social spending. The President’s inability to reduce poverty levels has been seized on as ‘proof’ that his plans were never viable.
Chávez’s principal problem has been his commitment to democratic rules in a region accustomed to democraduras - regimes which are half-democratic, half-dictatorial, the democratic aspect guaranteeing a vote every few years while the dictatorial aspect crushes popular discontent.
In the experience of this reporter most Venezuelans reject the coup plotters’ agenda but fear the dramatic polarization provoked by Chávez’s ambitious plans. In addition, the private media must shoulder the blame for acting as propagandists in the service of the opposition rather than instruments of mass communication subject to rules of fairness, accuracy and accountability.
If Chávez is ousted by force the impact on the region will be powerful - yet another reminder that when democracy begins to favour the poor then the will of the majority is ruthlessly swept aside.
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