Who is Hugo Chavez Frias?
Hugo Chavez on his surprise visit to Plaza de los Museos. Photo: lubrio, reproduced under a CC license.
Since I arrived in Venezuela a little over a week ago, Hugo Chavez Frias has been a busy person. On my first evening in the capital, Caracas, he was addressing thousands of young people in a sports stadium and boxing with recently returned Olympic athletes. The next day, he addressed a rally of tens of thousands of government supporters in the state of Merida. From there, he went to Tachira, to similarly massive crowds swelling through the streets. On Friday evening, he made a surprise visit to a festival at the Plaza de los Museos, Caracas, where young people were celebrating the launch of the second Venezuelan satellite, named ‘Miranda’, which was built in China by scientists from both countries.
Ask yourself this: in Europe, is there a single political leader who would turn up, without warning and with little security around him, at a festival of young people and be immediately surrounded by passionate supporters? As he made his way through the crowd, there were chants of ‘Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va!’ (Chavez is not going). The next day, that chant continued into the city of Zulia, where tens of thousands rallied once again. According to a report in the British Observer newspaper on Sunday, Chavez is ‘drained and bloated by cancer treatment’, and ‘sometimes has trouble walking.’ You have to wonder if Rory Carroll, the author of the report, is actually talking about the same person. Indeed, you have to wonder if he is living on the same planet.
Chavez didn’t seem to have any difficulty walking onto the stage in Zulia, with an electric guitar hanging across his stomach and pretending to join in with the band that was performing. Appropriately, his speech began with a spontaneous sing-a-long with the crowd, before moving on to the assertion that ‘Venezuela today is independent and free, and we are not a colony of anyone!’
From pacted to participatory democracy
There are accusations that Chavez has built a cult of personality in Venezuela, and it is undeniable that he is a character difficult to avoid. During election campaigns, he is particularly in his element. After all, Chavez has won more democratic elections than any other president in recent years. Since he first came into power, after winning 56 per cent of the vote in 1998, the political culture of the country has been transformed. Millions of poor Venezuelans, excluded from the political system during the preceding decades of ‘pacted democracy’ in which the two mainstream parties shared power, voted for the first time. In the following year, Chavez won a referendum to write a new constitution for the country, and the public submitted proposals for what it would contain. The pocket-sized Bolivarian Constitution is often held up by Chavez during interviews and rallies, and is still sold on street corners today. After the Constitution was passed, again by a democratic election, the President was re-elected for a second time in as many years, this time with 59 per cent of the vote. In 2006, Chavez was re-elected with 62 per cent.
The figures speak for themselves, as do the credentials of Venezuela’s democratic process. Surely, the real question, then, is: what are the root causes of that popularity? Reading the reports of mainstream Western media sources, you would be forgiven for thinking of the Venezuelan masses as a herd of blind sheep unthinkingly following a caudillo-type supremo with slavish devotion. After all, an example of an alternative system that works, a system in which making money is not the prime objective of government policies, truly is a dangerous thing. So, we hear reports of ‘human rights abuses’ in Venezuela, with no specification of what these supposed abuses are, exactly. We are told of Chavez’s use of Venezuela’s oil wealth to gain electoral support, without further elaboration. Indeed, it may be difficult for people living in a country with such a moribund political system to imagine that any politician could genuinely gain the support of his compatriots. So, let us explore the possibility in a serious way.
Why is it that the majority of the Venezuelan population keeps re-electing Hugo Chavez’s government? Is it because a country once mired in corruption and poverty now has the lowest level of inequality in the whole of the Americas? Is it because, since Chavez came to power, 22 universities have been built – are all completely free for students to attend, and which encourage those from less privileged backgrounds to do so? Is it because people living in the barrios (poorer neighbourhoods) in the hills surrounding Caracas can now take a cable car into the city that has transformed a lengthy journey into a relaxing 10 minutes, and is completely free for anyone to travel on? Is it because the government has built playgrounds in city plazas for young children to play on? Is it because of the government education misiones which have taught elderly women and men to read and write for the first time? Is it because the Bolivarian Constitution, written by the public and passed by a national referendum, enshrines the rights of indigenous people for the first time, or is it because it bans any foreign country from having a military base on Venezuelan soil?
The ‘elusive’ president
Or, as Rory Carroll would like us to think, is Chavez now an ‘ailing, elusive figure’? It seems strange for an elusive figure to spend an important week opening a new factory, giving a lengthy interview on television, travelling up and down the country speaking to many thousands of people and joining young people at a festival in Caracas. But then again, maybe Carroll knows something that I don’t?
In his article, he goes on to suggest that recent polls are leaning either way, but this is a distortion of reality. The average of recent polls puts Chavez’s lead at a double-figure percentage over his opponent, with 10 polls ranging from 13-28 per cent. The only two polls posing the possibility of a Capriles victory put his lead at between 2 and 4 per cent. Again, it is an example of attempts to conceal the reality of the situation.
The fact is, Hugo Chavez is an extremely well-known and popular figure in Venezuela, but it is not because of posters in the street that he has been elected so many times, and is likely to be re-elected again on Sunday. This line of argument only goes to show the prejudice in our view of Venezuelan people’s intellect, and their capacity to develop informed political views. On the contrary, it is Chavez’s ability to connect with ordinary Venezuelans, and the concrete achievements of his government, that will prove the deciding factors.
The title of Rory Carroll’s article described Sunday’s election as a ‘final showdown’. But, if the voice of Venezuela’s majority is heard, what they view as a revolutionary process may have only just begun.
Slideshow photo: www_ukberri_net, reproduced under a CC license.