Debate over 'military man' Chávez hots up ahead of election


Dissenters say he runs Venezuela like a barracks, and that corruption is rife. Backers see a visionary leader

IN 2002 it was from poor neighbourhoods such as 23 de Enero that residents marched out of to demand the return of Hugo Chávez after he was briefly ejected from Venezuela’s presidency in a botched coup.

The neighbourhood, whose tower blocks are decorated with huge murals of fallen Latin revolutionaries such as Ché Guevara and Alfonso Cano – the leader of Colombia’s Farc guerrilla movement killed last year – remains a hotbed of support for Chávez and his leftist Bolivarian Revolution.

When supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles speculate darkly about armed chavistas refusing to accept a defeat for the president in Sunday’s presidential election, they have in mind the colectivos of 23 de Enero, radical groups descended from South America’s guerrilla wars of the 1960s and 1970s who are among his revolution’s most fervent backers.

In 2002 local resident William (not his real name) was one of those demanding the return of his president. But today he says he no longer supports the revolution. His disillusionment started when he went to university in 2004 to study economics. There he joined a radical chavista group and read leading Marxist theorists such as Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. “That was when I realised Chávez is not a leftist.”

Since coming to power in 1999, Chávez has become an icon for much of the global left. His “21st century socialism” is one of the few alternatives in a world dominated by capitalism and he has forged a close relationship with communist Cuba. But inside Venezuela there is intense debate about the nature of the Bolivarian Revolution, and the historical role of its leader, easily the best-known figure to emerge from Latin America since Fidel Castro.

For many critics like William – who today must hide his rejection of the president from colleagues in the government ministry where he works lest he be fired from a public service increasingly staffed by Chávez loyalists – the revolutionary trappings of the regime mask old-fashioned Latin populism. These dissenters argue that the revolution amounts to nothing more than doling out the country’s oil revenue to badly conceived and poorly executed government projects rife with corruption.

“In the ministry we know Chávez is talking nonsense when he talks about the revolution’s successes in boosting national production,” says William. “Part of our work is to justify the lies he says on television.” The charges of populism are reinforced by the old-fashioned cult of personality that has grown up around the president. Across Venezuela his image beams down from billboards and posters, embracing the elderly, instructing the young, lecturing soldiers and he frequently breaks into regular programming to commandeer the airwaves.

“Chávez’s training is military, one in which orders must be obeyed and not discussed,” says former ally Freddy Gutierrez, who was a civilian conspirator when then Lieut ColChávez attempted his own coup in 1992. “Now he runs the entire country as if it was a barracks.”

Sitting in the office of his Tal Cual newspaper, former guerrilla and trenchant Chávez critic Teodoro Petkoff waves off any suggestion that the president is of the left: “Chávez is just another Latin American caudillo [strongman]. He is nothing but a military man anxious for power, not a leftist.” But the president does not lack socialist supporters.

“At a moment when even left-wing parties had adopted neo-liberalism, Chávez appeared as someone who most represented the things we had fought for in the past such as social justice. That is why I and many on the left support his project,” says philosopher Vladimir Acosta, another former Marxist guerrilla who uses his programme on national radio to mount a “critical” defence of the revolution.

Part of the difficulty in defining Chávez’s revolution is that it is a process that has evolved while he has been in power. When he was first elected in 1998 he used the language of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s “Third Way”. But after the US-backed coup attempt against him in 2002, and a subsequent strike by company bosses, Chávez’s stance against the country’s business community hardened and he increasingly relied for support and advice on Cuba’s Fidel Castro, radicalising his movement.

But even within this radicalised Bolivarian Revolution, there are various competing groups with tensions existing between the senior chavista officials who control the state apparatus, many of them drawn from the military, and more radical elements who want to drive the revolution forward. “The revolution has after 13 years in power created a new class that has appropriated part of the state for itself. Its members prefer to maintain the current system because they receive privileges from their positions. But when you institutionalise a revolution you kill it like in the Soviet Union or the Mexican revolution,” says sociologist and Chávez supporter Javier Biardeau.

The revolution’s internal fault line is between this small but powerful group around the president and supporters of plans to devolve sweeping authority to tens of thousands of local communes that will shift much of the decision-making and control over state resources from the national assembly to local communities.

Critics say these plans are another step in removing the traditional checks and balances on presidential power. But supporters such as Prof Biardeau say the communes will break the grip of the lobbyists who gather around the national congress and high-ranking chavista officials and who are responsible for the corruption that has done so much to discredit the revolution among former supporters.

“There is a tension between the concentration of power around Chávez and the expansion of this participative democracy. And Chávez lives this tension internally,” notes Biardeau.

Having the chance to resolve this internal tension now depends on the revolution winning Sunday’s vote. Chávez has already triumphed in three presidential races and survived a recall vote and the polls show him in front again. He says he wants another six-year term in order to make his revolution “irreversible”.

But for the first time since Chávez has come to power the opposition believes it has a chance of defeating the president at the ballot box and bringing his revolution to a close. “They accuse Chávez of being an autocrat,” says former guerrilla Acosta. “But when did someone try and carry out a revolution in which the electorate was consulted so many times?”

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