president Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez frequently makes public appearances in military
fatigues and tells his audience that he is "dressed for battle." He adds
that his words are ammunition and his targets are those adversaries who act at
the behest of the discredited political parties of the establishment.
scored a string of electoral victories that have left the formerly dominant
parties disgraced and demoralized. First, he triumphed in the presidential
elections in December 1998 with 56 percent of the vote, as opposed to the meager
9 percent of the 2 main establishment parties—the social democratic Democratic
Action (AD) and the social Christian Copei. Subsequently, in a referendum in
April, 90 percent of the votes were cast in favor of Chávez’s proposal for a
Constituent Assembly. For Chávez, the Assembly’s raison d’etre is nothing
less than the thorough transformation of the nation’s political system.
Then, on July 25,
Chávez trounced his opponents in the election for the Constituent Assembly. All
but a handful of the candidates elected to the 131-seat Assembly belong to Chávez’s
coalition. The remaining few were endorsed by AD and Copei, whose
candidates—including several of the parties’ national
leadership—deceptively called themselves "independents."
inauguration of the Assembly, influential actors abroad have questioned its
assumption of emergency powers. At issue is the Constituent Assembly’s claim
that it is hierarchically superior to all other public institutions and its
decision to oversee Congress, the judicial system, and state governments. In an
editorial on August 21, the New York Times labeled the Constituent
Assembly’s actions "Jacobin" and criticized it for "concentrating power
in the presidency." The U.S. State Department, which had maintained a discrete
silence regarding Chávez since his election, advised Venezuela to maintain
"the separation of powers between the diverse branches of government."
glimpse at Chávez’s past and his government’s program dispels the notion
that he is set on assuming dictatorial power and that his efforts to fortify the
executive branch overrides social concerns. Most important, none of the members
of the opposition has been locked behind bars or persecuted in any way and no
restrictions have been placed on the media, despite its criticism of the
originally raised the banner of the Constituent Assembly as a vehicle for
radical political change at the time of the abortive military coup he led in
1992. He again embraced it last year during the presidential campaign. Chávez
lambasted the nation’s Constitution of 1961 for privileging political parties.
Their representatives in Congress have powers ranging from the nomination of
judges to approval of military promotions. Chávez reserves his sharpest attacks
for AD and Copei, which for decades have been at the center of what he
pejoratively calls "party-democracy" marked by clientelism, inefficiency,
with their goal of limiting the reach of political parties and promoting
participatory democracy, the Chavistas elected to the Constituent Assembly have
moved to turn the judicial system upside down and are expected to enact the
popular election of judges. Coalition partner Patria Para Todos (PPT) issued a
statement in September calling on the Assembly to create an "autonomous and
decentralized" court system, adding that "the jails should be utilized only
as a last resort and should cease being a depot of human beings to convert
itself into centers of work and study."
delegates favor eliminating state legislatures and reducing the authority of
governors in order to enhance that of a municipal government accessible to
taking part in the campaign for the Constituent Assembly, Chávez flaunted
Venezuelan law and tradition, which forbids the president from taking sides in
elections so as to avoid utilization of the immense resources at his disposal.
Chávez, however, must capitalize on his popularity if he is to carry through on
his promise to overhaul the nation’s political system. The parties that back
him, including his own Fifth Republic Party, fall short of the task. Not only do
they lack prestigious leaders, but also they are divided among themselves. Chávez’s
movement began as a one-man show, and although some of its leaders have achieved
a degree of national popularity, it is still completely dependent on its
The Why Of
is a product of popular outrage and effervescence. Fifty years of relatively
stable oil prices had provided the nation with a stable democracy, which
contrasted with the military-run governments in the rest of the continent in the
1960s and 1970s. The sharp downturn in prices in the 1980s interrupted
Venezuela’s prosperity. Then on February 27, 1989 mass riots of slum dwellers
broke out throughout the nation, leaving an estimated 2,000 dead. Venezuela
would never be the same.
who heads a major community organization in Caracas, told me: "After February
27, we tried to reconstruct what I call the ‘social fabric’ by easing social
tensions, but to no avail. Poor people consider the affluent communities enemy
grounds. Any businessman who is successful is assumed to be corrupt, and that
goes for politicians as well. The distrust is mutual. The middle class fears
that the poor are about to invade their communities."
cleavage manifests itself in attitudes toward Chávez. The radical language of
the president, who on several occasions has questioned the sanctity of private
property, increasingly alienates middle class members. They view Chávez as
indiscreet, long-winded, and uncouth. In contrast, the nation’s have-nots are
as solidly behind him as at the time of his election and are especially taken by
his frequent references to the plight of the poor.
charisma is not hard to grasp. He represents different things to different
people. He frequently speaks to the nation informally in TV appearances that go
on for hours, in the style of FDR’s fireside chats. He also has a weekly
call-up radio program named "Hello, President." He sometimes shows up
unexpectedly and virtually unaccompanied at hospitals and elsewhere in order to
get a close-up view of the nation’s pressing problems. Chávez comes off as an
ordinary Venezuelan whose childhood dream was to play baseball in the majors. On
a trip to Asia in October, Chávez pitched prior to a game to Venezuelan slugger
Roberto Petagine, who leads the Japanese major leagues in home runs. He
performed a similar feat at Shea Stadium in New York earlier this year.
proudly talks of his Indian extraction in a country where many are conscious of
their African blood but forget that they are also mestizo.
a homegrown style of nationalism underpinned by Venezuelan heroes. His discourse
resembles Sandinismo, which also developed a national doctrine while breaking
with imported models of Marxism-Leninism. Chávez berates historians for
practically writing off the nation’s history between the death of Simón Bolívar
in 1830 and the modern era, dismissing a whole century of political leaders as
"caudillos," or strong-men. In a book of interviews with Chávez entitled
The Commander Speaks, he states: "Caudillos may have been necessary for
the incorporation of our people in historical struggles. I believe we have been
sold an imported bourgeois democratic model—that of the elimination of our
"caudillo" leaders was Chávez’s great-grandfather, known as "Maisanta."
A life-long rebel, Maisanta participated in an uprising that left an
ex-president dead, and in another which involved the execution of a notoriously
ruthless governor. He was finally subdued in 1922 and spent his last seven years
Like Maisanta, Chávez
is a rebel at heart. As a junior officer, he dedicated ten years laying the
groundwork for an unsuccessful coup he staged on February 4, 1992 against
neoliberal president Carlos Andrés Pérez (who was impeached a year later on
grounds of corruption). Unlike his great-grandfather, Chávez was released from
jail after serving only two years and went on to form a makeshift party
consisting of ex-military officers and leftists including "ultras." He has
now rewarded some of these same followers positions in his cabinet and the
of the candidates unexpectedly defeated in the elections for the Constituent
Assembly was Carlos Andrés Pérez, Chávez’s archrival. Pérez claims that
the choice available to Venezuelans is between "liberty and dictatorship,"
while making clear who represents what. Pérez predicts that Chávez will
convert the Assembly into a vehicle for personal rule.
If what Pérez
and other opposition leaders say about Chávez’s authoritarian tendencies is
true, then his presidency fits the general pattern of excessively powerful
executives characteristic of Latin American democracies in the 1990s. Peru’s
Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, and, as in the case
of Argentina’s Carlos Menem, ruled for several years largely by decree. These
and other presidents have often run roughshod over congress in order to impose
neoliberal policies that they themselves had adamantly opposed when first
running for office.
Chávez has also
placed in doubt the legitimacy of the Congress, the parties of the
establishment, and even the bureaucratically run labor movement, leading some to
question his commitment to democracy. In addition, he has set aside his radical
proposals on economic policy, such as a negotiated moratorium on the foreign
debt and revision of contracts with foreign oil companies, and he no longer
lashes out at the International Monetary Fund.
is hardly moving in the direction of Menem and Fujimori, nor does he resemble
their radical populist predecessors such as Juan Domingo Perón or Lázaro Cárdenas.
In the first place, Chávez was a junior officer who conspired against the
government for ten years and then led an armed uprising. In his informal style,
his physical traits, and his lower middle class background he is more "one of
the people" than were his populist counterparts.
key slogan is popular participation, a far cry from the paternalist
relationships promoted by populism. Indeed, his followers have a sense of
optimism and efficacy—that they are the major players in a process that
promises to transform the nation more than any event since Independence.
the conservative setting in Latin America in the 1990s, Chávez’s movement is
distinguished by its radical and confrontational thrust.
critique of Venezuela’s post-1958 democracy goes beyond repudiation of
discredited politicians of the ilk of Carlos Andrés Pérez. He proposes a
completely new political model for Venezuela of direct citizen participation. In
the book The A, B, C of the Constituent Assembly, Chávez follower Fabian
Chacón quotes Rousseau as saying "the system of representation contradicts
the principle of popular sovereignty." Chacón put it this way to me: "The
idea that people can intervene in politics at any given moment, as against
having to wait four or five years at election time, is the difference between
night and day." He went on to note that for the Chavistas the quintessence of
"participatory democracy" is the proposal of a referendum allowing
Venezuelans to vote politicians out of office in periods between elections.
One facet of the
deepening of the nation’s democracy is the democratization of the nation’s
main labor federation, the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV). Chavistas
pressured the CTV into allowing the rank and file to directly elect the
president and other members of its executive committee. These elections will
make the CTV practically unique among major labor federations throughout the
world. The CTV also gave in to the insistence by Chavistas that the elections be
supervised by an outside, neutral body, thus minimizing possible fraud.
Nevertheless, the CTV stopped short of acceding to another demand of Chavista
labor leaders, namely the inclusion of unorganized workers—including such
self-employed ones as street vendors—in the list of voters.
such as police, members of the cultural community, ecological organizations, and
even children participated in meetings to formulate proposals for the
Constituent Assembly and, in some cases, launched their own candidates.
The First Lady,
Marisabel Rodríguez de Chávez, who has played an activist role on behalf of
children’s rights in general, and street children in particular, was elected
to the Constituent Assembly with the second largest vote. She proposes the
creation of the figure of "The Defender of the Rights of Children" who would
encourage children to come forward and denounce abuses. The tenacity of the
First Lady’s convictions and courage was demonstrated during the presidential
campaign when she publicly stated that her child, Rosainés Chávez, was
conceived out of wedlock.
election has set off efforts to organize and mobilize other sectors of the
population including the unemployed, land squatters, and even prisoners.
Venezuelan jails are among the most dilapidated and dangerous in the world.
President Chávez and several followers met with prisoners and convinced them to
turn over weapons. Sarith Suriega, a congressperson I spoke to belonging to Chávez’s
Fifth Republic party, participated in the endeavor: "Prisoners handed over
some of their weapons which they had concealed in the walls, and in return we
promised to look into their grievances, not only regarding prison conditions but
the injustices of their own sentences."
Rear Admiral Luis Cabrera, who ran for governor and was one of the top rebel
leaders in 1992, pointed out to me: "70 percent of our prisoners are awaiting
sentences. These people are a potentially powerful force, and their tactics such
as hunger strikes draw worldwide attention. We (the Fifth Republic party)
received a majority of votes in all the nation’s penitentiaries in the
From a political
viewpoint, Chávez’s initiatives and his promises not to use force against
those who protest have paid off, at least in the short run. A large part of the
population is actively behind him and willing to take to the streets should
circumstances require. In the long run, however, his militant rhetoric could
backfire if expectations are not met.
in favor of non-privileged sectors gets translated into certain policies, which
hardly sits well with the IMF and national business groups. Although Chávez now
accepts privatization, he adamantly opposes it in the area of health and
education, and has put a hold on last year’s law eliminating the publicly run
social security program. His government has also clamped down on private schools
that fail to meet basic standards. Spokespeople for this sector have warned that
the draft of the new constitution submitted to the constituent assembly in
October points in the direction of the elimination of private education.
In July, he also
unveiled a $900 million public works program to combat unemployment under the
direction of military authorities. Representatives of the international business
community criticized it for diverting money, derived from recent oil price
increases, which should be used to put government finances in order. At the same
time, Venezuelan business spokespeople attacked the plan for sidetracking the
In a march
organized by the "Fifth Republic" and PPT parties on September 2 in Caracas,
the parties’ worker contingents called for the restoration of the system of
severance payment, calculated on the basis of the employees last salary, which
the previous pro-neoliberal government had scrapped. The constitutional draft
submitted to the Constituent Assembly in October restores the old system
(although a last minute change of wording leaves the article somewhat
element in Chávez’s political strategy is the armed forces, which have been
incorporated into the nation’s life in the form of programs of
civilian-military cooperation and appointment of officers to top government
positions. The president’s proposal for granting military personnel the right
to vote, which leftists have been pushing for since the 1970s, was brought to
the floor of the Constituent Assembly in October. Chávez can count on the armed
forces as an ally, particularly crucial should political tensions reach a
threshold conducive to military intervention.
independent and audacious foreign policy also represents a radical break with
previous Administrations. At the same time, it thrusts Venezuela into a
leadership position among Latin American nations increasingly concerned with new
forms of U.S. intervention.
This role of
protagonist was demonstrated at the 29th General Assembly of the Organization of
American States (OAS) held in Guatemala in June 1999. At the meeting, Foreign
Minister José Vicente Rangel pointed to possible corruption among narcotics
officials in the United States, at the same time that he called for elimination
of Washington’s annual "certification" of Latin American nations according
to their record in combating the drug trade. Rangel, a three-time socialist
candidate for president, posed the question "how does the country which
figures as the principle market for narcotics get off certifying the efforts of
other nations in this area?"
At the OAS
general assembly, Rangel led the resistance to a resolution sponsored by U.S.
Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering which would have created mechanisms to
impede the slippage of democratically elected governments toward dictatorship.
In an interview, Rangel told me, "The U.S. motion was vague and rested on
hypothetical situations. If it had prospered, it would have served as a pretext
In the interview,
Rangel pointed to the turnabout in the attitude of the U.S. embassy in Caracas,
which, during the presidential campaign, had denied Chávez a visa due to his
conspiratorial past. "The State Department has shown great caution toward Chávez
because of what I call the "Cuba Syndrome": the fear that U.S. inflexibility
will push Chávez to the extreme left, as it did Castro."
Rangel does not
deny the possibility that Chávez’s independent foreign policy could put a
damper on investments from abroad, but notes, "With the end of the Cold War,
foreign investors have paid less attention to ideology and geopolitics. They
consider Chávez’s commitment to revamp the notoriously corrupt and
inefficient judicial system far more significant than any abstract
Washington’s apparent easygoingness has been transformed into a more critical
posture. Undoubtedly, one reason for this change in attitude is the realization
that the political revolution Chavez is leading inevitably spills over to the
economic sphere, in the process undermining U.S. economic interests.
importance is the key role Chavez has begun to play in OPEC. In recent years,
Venezuela was notorious for scabbing on OPEC by increasing oil exports. The Chávez
government’s announcement early this year that it would not attempt to recover
the portion of the U.S. market previously lost to Saudia Arabia signaled a new
policy of complying with Venezuela’s production quotas. In March of next year,
Chávez hopes to host OPEC’s second summit of heads of states (the first was
held in 1975) in which non-OPEC oil exporters will also participate. There Chávez
is expected to push for the proposal for OPEC to reassume the role abandoned two
decades ago of setting prices in the form of establishing a maximum-minimum
range between which prices will be allowed to oscillate.
In less than one
year in office, Chávez has diverged from the U.S. on a wide range of issues.
What he said in China on the last day of a visit in October was more than just
empty rhetoric: "We have begun to put into practice an autonomous foreign
policy independent of any center of power, and in this we resemble China." Chávez
went on to tell the Chinese that his end vision was nothing less than a
exhorted fellow rebels to lay down their arms after intense fighting on February
4, 1992, he declared, "Unfortunately, the objectives we formulated have not
been achieved for now." The "for now" phrase has since become legendary in
Venezuela. It serves as a reminder that Chávez is, above all, a strategist with
a keen sense of timing. Indeed, Chávez makes this point to his followers. At a
rally announcing Caracas’ eight candidates for the Constituent Assembly in
June, Chávez told supporters that his movement has "cards up our sleeves"
and cited the proverb "battle that is announced, doesn’t kill soldiers."
Until now the
president has carefully limited his radical objectives to the nation’s
political system. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Chavez and many of his
followers have an underlying socio-economic vision. Many of his leading
supporters have over an extended period of time called for reexamination of the
foreign debt and defended state control of strategic sectors of the economy. If
Chávez is successful in consolidating power and drafting a constitution, which
transforms political institutions, he may well switch over to a second track
with the aim of overcoming economic dependence. For now, Chávez is
concentrating his fire on corrupt and traditional-minded politicians, while
defending national sovereignty in the form of an independent foreign policy.
Steve Ellner is the author of scores of articles on Venezuelan politics and
history and is co-editor of The Latin American Left: From the Fall of
Allende to Perestroika (Westview). He has taught economic history at the
Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977.