SPEAKING to a crowd draped in red, Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, entertains his faithful supporters with songs, witty banter and anti-US rhetoric during his weekly live television and radio address called Alo Presidente (Hello, Mr President). That he is still in a position to address his supporters, known as chavistas, is remarkable given the recent history of failed coup attempts, mass protests and referendums.
In 1992 Chavez, a former paratrooper, first attempted to gain power by launching a military coup against the Government for which he served two years in jail. Six years later, he swept to power with a huge elected majority, backed mostly by the poor and indigenous populations. In 2002, in a typically bold move, President Chavez sacked hundreds of employees from the state oil company, unleashing a wave of strikes. The strikes culminated in bloody mass protests and an ensuing coup where Chavez was ousted from Miraflores, the presidential palace. Just two days later, after the interim Government collapsed, he was back in Miraflores only to be faced with another national strike that crippled the economy and left oil tankers idle along the Caribbean coast. His opponents, from the church, media and business world, refused to give in and scurried around collecting the 3.4 million signatures needed to trigger a referendum. Yet again, el comandante, as Chavez is affectionately known, pulled through, winning the August 2004 referendum with 59 per cent of Venezuelans voting in favour of the President serving out his remaining term.
Chavez offers Venezuela his own new brand of socialism: an eclectic mix of socialist ideas inspired by his revered revolutionary heroes, among them Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara and his mutual admirer Fidel Castro, encompassed in a project known as the Bolivarian revolution. The radical social reforms are funded by oil profits, which are tightly controlled by the state.
Chavez has attacked poverty through seven projects known as ‘missions’, with education being the cornerstone of his fight against poverty. The missions, which are considered to be the main achievements of the Bolivarian revolution, aim to reduce illiteracy and high school drop-out rates, renovate and build more schools and provide grants to allow poor people access to universities. Other missions focus on child immunization schemes and community healthcare projects. The driving force behind the missions are the legions of Cuban teachers and doctors shipped in to train teachers and care for the sick in hilltop slums in exchange for cheaper barrels of oil for Cuba. The redistribution of stateowned land has given thousands of landless Venezuelans official land title rights, allowing many to have a territorial stake in the country for the first time.
But while a greater number of poor people may have land titles, and better access to schooling and healthcare, the Bolivarian revolution has not eradicated widespread poverty, and unemployment has risen during the Chavez presidency.
As Venezuela is the world’s fourth-largest oil supplier, there is some room for manoeuvre. Around 60 per cent of its oil exports go to the US but Chavez is diversifying his client list and has courted new trading partners such as China and India, who are also interested in Venezuela’s gas reserves.
While Chavez retrains reservists and looks east to bumper his stockpiles of arms and helicopters, eagerly supplied by Russia and Spain, the US looks down on the continent nervously. US-Venezuelan relations are beset by suspicion and fear. For the US, Hugo Chavez is a loose cannon and is considered a ‘destabilizing force’ in the region. For Chavez, the US represents arrogant imperial world domination; he has even accused Washington of conspiring to assassinate him.
While Chavez hopes to win his third election next year, the poor and unemployed continue to struggle daily in the slums that surround the bright lights and skyscrapers of affluent downtown Caracas.
|Leader||President Hugo Chavez|
|Economy||GNI per capita $3,490 (Colombia $1,810, US $37,610).|
|Monetary unit||Bolivar (VEB)|
|Main exports||petroleum, aluminium, steel, chemical products, iron ore, cigarettes, plastics and fish.|
|People||26.6 million. People per square kilometre: 29 (UK 245).|
|Health||Infant mortality 18 per 1,000 live births (Colombia 18, US 7). In the past decade there has been a marked reduction in infant mortality rates. HIV prevalence rate: 0.7%.|
|Environment||There is severe deforestation, particularly along the Sierra de Perija mountain range. Indigenous communities in western Venezuela protest that coalmining operations are polluting and damaging their arable farmland and water. The lack of waste treatment and polluted water are also major concerns.|
|Culture||About 70% of the population is mestizo (mixed European and indigenous) and 10% African. European immigrants are mainly from Italy and Portugal. The majority of the population live in urban areas in the north.|
|Religion||96% Roman Catholic, growing numbers of Protestants and evangelical groups.|
|Language||Spanish is the official language but numerous indigenous dialects are spoken.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Widespread inequality between rich and poor has created an élite. But high inflation, the recession of 2002 and devaluation of the bolivar in 2004 hit the middle and upper classes too.|
|Literacy||93%. Primary school attendance is 94% and secondary 69%, with more girls than boys in school. The 40% tertiary education rate compares favourably with many rich countries.|
|Life expectancy||74 years (Colombia 72, US 77).|
|Freedom||New laws have curtailed press freedom and the press in general has been muzzled. Chavez exercises tight control over media outlets, who refrained from broadcasting the demonstrations during the April 2002 coup.|
|Position of women||A law has established a 50% quota for women candidates in National Assembly and municipal council elections. But more women than men are unemployed and live below the poverty line.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is legal, and a growing gay club scene in Caracas suggests greater tolerance of sexual minorities in urban areas. But lesbians and gays cannot serve in the armed forces. The legal position on transgender is unclear.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Chavez has polarized Venezuelan society between those who loathe him and those who idolize him. But despite fierce opposition, the enigmatic and tenacious President is a political survivor who has at least managed to offer the chavistas a sense of hope and the feeling that a long-lost brother is finally defending their interests.|