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.