The Talented Mr. Chávez

A Castro-loving, Bolivar-worshipping, onetime baseball-player wannabe, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is perhaps the world’s most openly anti-American head of state. With Latin America in the midst of a leftward swing, how dangerous is he?
The Chavistsa Society

Chávez describes his approach to government as “socialism of the twenty-first century,” a phrase borrowed from the German-Mexican theorist Heinz Dieterich, among others. This brand of socialism, its adherents claim, appreciates the failures of past revolutions, in particular the failure to create genuinely “participatory democracies.” Chávez, his intellectual supporters argue, has come much closer to hitting the mark, especially since the unveiling of his controversial new constitution in 1999.

Under the auspices of that document, the president can be recalled by a referendum, and the poor can launch privately owned cooperatives, subsidized by the state. Chávez has energetically promoted those aspects of the constitution that grant more power to “the people.” Many people on the street carry little blue books that contain the text of the new document. They read it on the subway and can cite its verses from memory. Seemingly every Chavista I met wanted to send me away with a copy. Even taxi drivers and maids have become constitutional boors.

The distribution of the blue books is a part of Chávez’s campaign to create what he calls a “protagonist” system—one in which the Venezuelan people have a direct, unmediated relationship with their leader. But there’s no mistaking the driving impulse behind the document itself: to concentrate power in the presidency while weakening those branches of government that might, in fact, mediate on the people’s behalf.

The constitution trimmed the legislative branch from a potentially obstreperous bicameral body to a more easily managed, one-chamber National Assembly, which can pass legislation into law with a single vote. It eliminated congressional oversight of the military, allowing Chávez to more easily stack the army’s top ranks with friendly generals. And it lifted an old provision that prevented the president from serving consecutive terms. Chávez now wants to further amend this rule, so that he can serve a third term. His most powerful political allies openly predict that he will remain in power until 2030.

Chávez’s democratic bona fides have always been in question. When he emerged from prison in 1994, he went to live with an old veteran of Venezuelan politics named Luis Miquilena. A leftist, Miquilena had visited Chávez in prison and smuggled a phone into his cell. In Miquilena’s small apartment, the two men could hear each other’s breathing as they slept in adjoining rooms.

That’s not to say they slept much. Miquilena would argue with Chávez late into the night, attempting to persuade his protégé to reject armed struggle. “Eventually, he came to see that he could succeed through democratic processes,” Miquilena told me, while smoking a long cigar in a wingback chair. When I asked him about his late-night bull sessions with Chávez, Miquilena (who has since fallen out with the president) replied, “Chávez embraced democracy out of practical considerations, not theoretical ones. He came around to the idea of participating in elections for a simple reason: he believed that he could win.”

To visitors, Venezuela hardly resembles an authoritarian state. Unlike Cuba, for instance, private companies abound, and a privately owned press goes about its business. You can sit in a café and listen to people loudly denouncing the president as an ogre. Chavistas will point to these facts whenever their critics begin to denounce the country’s anti-democratic turn.

But that’s just another example of Chávez’s shrewdness: he has led the country in a more authoritarian direction only slowly, carefully calibrating his repressive measures so that they are too incremental to trigger popular outrage. When his opponents describe the prevailing atmosphere, they begin with the “Tascón List.” In 2003 and 2004, petitions circulated demanding referenda to recall the president—just the sort of people-empowering action enshrined as a right in the 1999 constitution. Soon thereafter, a list of the petitioners’ names and national identification numbers mysteriously appeared on the Web site of a pro-Chávez congressman named Luis Tascón. The government began denying these petitioners passports, government contracts, and public welfare. Two years ago, in a statement that he later recanted, the health minister brashly declared that any ministry employee who signed the list would be fired, “because [the petition] is an act of terrorism.”

Media intimidation has begun as well. The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, passed in 2004, allows the government to suspend stations that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order or that are contrary to the security of the nation.” The law has cowed the television networks, once devoted to dropping rhetorical napalm on the regime. Venevision, once a particularly notorious anti-Chavista bastion, is now known as the Disney Channel, for its increasing abundance of cartoons and bland newscasts.

By adding twelve new chairs to the twenty-seat supreme court, and packing them with loyalists, Chávez has begun to domesticate the courts as well. He proudly presented the new jurists like a trophy at the opening of the court’s 2006 session. With the president in attendance, the robed justices rose to their feet and began to sing a favored chant of their benefactor: Uh, ah, Chávez no se va” (“Uh, ah, Chávez is not leaving”).

Public opinion is far more deeply divided over Chávez than is the judiciary, and protests are relatively common. In 2002, the army high command grew nervous about the president’s feints toward a fully nationalized economy, and led a coup against him. The coup temporarily succeeded, and might have endured if Chávez’s would-be successor, Pedro Carmona, had not immediately announced the dismissal of the National Assembly, the supreme court, and all of the country’s mayors and governors. Carmona (now ignominiously known as Pedro the Brief) succeeded in spooking the public and prompting widespread protests—and the army reinstalled Chávez just two days after removing him (but not before an eager Bush White House had tacitly recognized Carmona’s government).

Since 2002, Chávez has purged the military of disloyal officers and stepped up his patronage of those who remain. He has backed off his rhetoric about confiscating private property, which had alienated Venezuela’s middle and upper classes. Perhaps most importantly, he has showered Venezuela’s large lower class with cash.

Chávez’s base resides in the ranchos, the slums that spill down the hills surrounding Caracas. Social scientists refer to the residents of these neighborhoods as the “marginales,” and they exist within informal communities, often without police services, municipal buses, stores, or even running water.

While they are not politically monolithic, many marginales have an empathic connection to Chávez, whom they already consider one of their own because of his dark skin color and folksy demeanor. His references to Jesus—“If Christ were here, among us, right now, there’s no doubt that Christ … would vote for the revolution”—and his political style bear a striking similarity to those of the evangelical preachers who have acquired massive followings in the slums.

The prime conduits for Chávez’s support for the poor are programs that he calls misiones,” another evangelical allusion. Chávez created them on the advice of Castro, and they mimic the Cuban approach to exporting socialism to Latin America. Castro would flood countries with resources intended to quickly heal social ills and demonstrate communist know-how. So if the poor can’t get health care in Venezuela, why not invite 17,000 Cuban doctors to live and practice in Caracas ranchos? Illiteracy? Chávez has sent a horde of teachers into the barrios.

All this spending has a tremendous psychological impact on the poor, who have felt neglected and cheated by generations of politicians. Chavista investments in the slums are obvious. For the first time, blighted neighborhoods have government-subsidized grocery stores, access to the Internet, and doctors tending to their children. These improvements have translated into palpable optimism. Some polls show that Venezuelans are more sanguine about their economic future than Canadians or Americans.

Whether this optimism will endure, though, is open to question. Spending has not been designed to produce sustainable results, and there is little evidence of any coherent social policy. Cuban doctors can’t compensate for the country’s ramshackle public hospitals. According to the government’s own official data, infant mortality increased in 2003 and 2004, the last two measured years. Over the course of Chávez’s presidency, the percentage of the population earning less than $2 a day has risen from 43 percent to 53 percent.

Today, Chavez’s desultory government spending and overall economic approach resembles the populism of the Argentine Juan Perón far more than any authentic socialist model. It is an incoherent mess, dependent on constant infusions of oil money, and is highly unlikely to lead to sustainable development for Venezuela. It is governed primarily by an age-old autocratic goal: the maintenance of personal power.

Chávez has always appeared more interested in “liberating” Latin America’s underclass than in actually fretting over the contours of the society that follows—the legacy he craves is that of a hero, not a technocrat. That may be one reason why so much of his attention now seems focused abroad. Perhaps his neglect of the Venezuelan economy will be his undoing. Perhaps oil prices will fall by half, which might destabilize his regime. But history suggests that oil-rich autocracies can often perpetuate themselves—through showy spending, selective patronage, and control of the military—for a very long time.

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