Hugo Chavez isn’t the only Venezuelan leader to ever challenge and anger the United States. Cipriano Castro, president of Venezuela from 1899 to 1908, was probably as big of an adversary to Washington as Hugo Chavez is today. Throughout Castro’s reign, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was itching for an excuse to invade Venezuela. He considered the Venezuelan president a “villainous little monkey,” and threatened to take action in order to teach Castro a lesson. Referring to the Venezuelan people, Roosevelt said he would “show those Dagos that they will have to behave decently.” But, to his dismay, he could not get the support of the American public for an intervention in Venezuela and would have to, for the time being, put up with Castro’s disobedience.
Castro was no revolutionary, but like Chavez, he was an outsider, rejected by the white elite class. He had an obvious mixed heritage with some Indian features, and came from the rural Andean region of Tachira. He was an ambitious nationalist and openly defied the interests of the United States, hostile to U.S. imperialism and the foreign companies who committed excesses in his country. But perhaps most of all, Castro had become fed up with the corrupt Caracas elite and their control of the political system. He led a movement to take over the political system and change it.
The threat of change was as feared then as it is now. For the local elites and their allies in Washington, change has never been in their interests. Since the colonial days, a small, white, economic and political elite has controlled the country and enriched themselves from the unfair, undemocratic system of exploitation. This system is closely linked to the interests of Washington, as Venezuela exports vast amounts of raw materials to the United States, and serves as a lucrative market for American products. Any attempts to change this structure would be very threatening to elite interests.
U.S. politicians did their best to smear Castro, calling him anti-American and corrupt. U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root said he was a “crazy brute.” Cartoonists in the U.S. portrayed him in a racist fashion, or as an ornery child. U.S. minister to Venezuela, Francis B. Loomis, described him as a “small, dark man” with an “admixture of Indian blood.” He added that he had “slight acquaintance with public men and with the details of Governmental business.” Although Castro may have had the support of Venezuelan nationalists, U.S. officials assured that he was not supported among the “better class of people.”
Hugo Chavez is seen in a very similar way. Upper and middle class Venezuelans will assure you that it is only the “stupid,” and “uneducated” poor people who support Chavez. Among the elite classes he is despised and regarded as an obnoxious idiot, a backwards “campesino” from the country’s interior. They will assure you that no “educated” person would ever support Chavez. “Ask any criminal or thug, they are the ones who support Chavez, ” one middle class student told me. “It’s just the poor people who vote for Chavez, but since the majority is poor, Chavez wins the elections, ” a neighbor told me. The majority of the population is seen as sub-human. They are too stupid to know anything, too stupid to know who to vote for.
As with Chavez, the Caracas elite was vehemently opposed to Cipriano Castro. With funding from the U.S. and other foreign companies, Manuel Antonio Matos, the richest man in Venezuela, launched a long and expensive revolution against the Castro government. Two years and twenty thousand deaths later, the revolution failed and Castro remained in power. The elites, however, continued calling for the U.S. to intervene and U.S. officials seem willing to oblige. The United States military drew up plans to kidnap the president and send him into exile. A provisional government made up of elite leaders would take power, but would need to be protected from the population, as the Caracas elite did not represent the majority of Venezuelans and might be met with violence. But the invasion never took place as another solution came about. When Castro had to go to Europe for health reasons, he was prevented him from ever returning to Venezuela with a U.S. naval blockade. The dictator Juan Vicente Gomez, supported by the U.S and friendly to elite interests, would rule for the next 30 years. In order to maintain order, dictatorship was preferable to democracy. Participation of the masses had to be avoided.
With almost one hundred years of history between them, Castro and Chavez both received very similar receptions from the Caracas elite and their allies in Washington. Since neither of them belonged to the white elite class of Venezuelans, they both presented a similar threat: they weren’t loyal to the interests of the elite.
In a nation founded on exploitation of Indian and African slaves, designed to make a few rich at the labor of the rest, class conflict has always been present. From the very beginning, the Venezuelan economy operated solely for the benefit of the Spanish landowners and the commercial traders. In order to build wealth from the exploitation of the nation’s riches, it was necessary to construct this unfair system. A system that served a minority, and inevitably, a system that excluded the vast majority. In a society such as this, which is built upon an undemocratic economic and political system, the biggest threat is democracy itself. The threat is that the people will elect someone who really represents them, who fights for their interests, who seeks real structural change, and who allows for the real democratic participation of the masses; a system that serves the interests of the majority, not a minority. But to be democratic, to serve the interests of the majority, means the unraveling of the whole colonial construction. Thus, the hidden truth has always been that democracy must be prevented, at all costs, by any means.
Chris Carlson is a Northamerican student and activist living in Venezuela. See his personal blog at: www.gringoinvenezuela.com