Rooting for Chavez

Print edition : September 10, 2004

Hugo Chavez is now one of the most potent symbols of resistance to U.S. imperialism in Latin America, and his social and economic policies are becoming widely recognised as possible alternatives to the mainstream Washington Consensus.

HUGO CHAVEZ, President of Venezuela, has always been a larger than life figure. In recent times his stature has, if anything, been enhanced by all the attacks against him. In Latin America, he is now one of the most potent symbols against U.S. imperialism, and his social and economic policies are becoming widely recognised as possible alternatives to the mainstream Washington Consensus. And so the results of the recent referendum on his rule are especially significant because they indicate the extent of popular support not only for Chavez, but also for his policies.

Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at Caracas' Maiquetia airport. A file picture.-ANDREW WINNING/REUTERS

He first attracted international attention in 1992 when he led a failed military coup against then President Carlos Andres Perez. He was jailed, pardoned two years later, and then elected President for the first time in 1998. His victory reflected the disintegration of the two corrupt parties that had run Venezuela for the previous 40 years under a system known as Puntofijo, in which they took turns to control the government and divided the spoils, especially the profits from oil exports, between them.

The right-wing elites of Venezuela, backed with money and resources from the U.S. government, have been baying for his blood ever since. This is the third major defeat in as many years for the right-wing Opposition, as it attempts to overthrow Chavez. In April 2002, it carried out a coup in collaboration with the Bush administration, briefly imprisoning Chavez and installing a junta of military officers and businessmen. This junta was quickly sought to be legitimised by the Bush administration, which did not reckon with the mass resistance that immediately erupted in the slums and working class neighbourhoods of Caracas and other areas of the country. Within a week, Chavez had to be reinstated, much to the discomfiture of the U.S. government and its local allies.

Subsequently, in 2003, an employer-organised general strike (focussing particularly on the country's crucial oil industry) that lasted for months also failed to dislodge the government, though it inflicted severe damage on the economy.

It was only after the failure of these extra-legal attempts to bring down the government that the Opposition opted to use a clause in the Constitution (ironically introduced under Chavez's rule) that allows for recall referendums. In the build-up to this referendum, and during the voting itself, the Opposition pulled out everything it could from its bag of dirty tricks, including the trick of spreading false information about the actual counts.

However, the final result could not have been more decisive, or more disappointing for the Opposition. The recall was comprehensively defeated, with those in favour of retaining Chavez accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the votes polled. This meant that Chavez won by a margin of around 20 per cent of all votes. The President more than retained the share of the vote he received in the 1998 and 2000 elections, and indeed found more than 1 million new supporters.

The turnout was unprecedented, with polls having had to stay open until midnight in order to process the 8.56 million votes cast. The previous record in Venezuelan history was for the 1988 elections, when 7.52 million people voted.

This result obviously provides a major boost to Chavez politically, as a resounding reconfirmation and a popular mandate to continue his current policies. But it is also a slap in the face of the elite Opposition and its U.S. financiers. Indeed, there was already outcry within Venezuela as official documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that a U.S. organisation, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is funded by the U.S. Congress, provided funds to Sumate, the organiser of the petition drive for the referendum. Sumate's leader had earlier endorsed the April 2002 coup by signing as a witness at the hastily convened swearing-in ceremony. Such external funding is in direct contravention of Venezuelan law.

NED also provided grants to other Opposition groups to develop alternatives to Chavez, such as the Centre for International Private Enterprise and the Venezuelan Centre for the Dissemination of Economic Information. In all, since it came to power the Bush administration has provided more than $4 million, or around $1 million every year, to efforts within Venezuela to dislodge Chavez in any way that can be found. This has included inciting workers to strike, creating civil unrest and economic dislocation - methods that are now familiar in Latin American history.

THE domestic Opposition is no less determined, and even less able than the U.S. government to accept defeat, even in the current case. While the U.S. government has grudgingly accepted that the vote was fair, local Opposition leaders are refusing to accept the results of Venezuela's National Electoral Council, despite the fact that they have been corroborated by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Centre, the Organisation of American States, and by all the other independent international observers.

This irresponsible attitude of the Opposition is not confined to rejecting the results of a democratic ballot. Hatred of Chavez has led to extreme reactions, such as the reported statement of former President and current Opposition leader Carlos Andres Perez that "Chavez should die like a dog" and that violence "is the only option we have left" to remove him from power.

Such responses - and indeed the entire process of the recall referendum and its result - reflect the extreme socio-economic polarisation within Venezuela. Although it is a major oil exporter, the country remains underdeveloped and ridden with inequality. As in several other countries in the region, nearly 60 per cent of the population lives in poverty, while the financial elite siphons off the country's oil wealth.

Chavez has won substantial popular support among Venezuela's impoverished majority, in part by using some of Venezuela's oil revenues to fund education, health and housing programmes. As a result, the poor are now not only beneficiaries of these programmes, they are also engaged in running them, which thereby creates much-needed employment. Abandoned buildings are being turned into neighbourhood centres to provide a range of public and community services. Local people are running community kitchens. Thousands are volunteering to teach in the literacy programmes, organising neighbourhood health brigades and registering millions of new voters.

These programmes are not especially radical. In fact they are similar to some of the policies undertaken even by the more "bourgeois" governments of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. However, they stand out because they are such a departure from the more recent neoliberal strategy that downplays attempts at social reform through public expenditure. Therefore, they represent a major change from the general trend in economic strategy across the region, which has involved cutting down public services and raising user charges for them, reducing public employment and generally redistributing incomes from the poor to the rich. They also represent a challenge, though a modest one, to the received wisdom emanating from Washington and being absorbed by governments across the developing world - of reducing the role of productive public spending and increasing the role of profit-oriented private delivery of almost all goods and services.

While these social expenditure programmes may have made life noticeably better for the poor, they have alarmed the oligarchy that had hitherto retained power through ensuring that the vast majority of the population remained poor, disempowered and disenfranchised. So Chavez has become an object of intense hatred within Venezuela's oligarchy and privileged sections of the middle class.

These groups view his halting of planned privatisations (including the privatisation of the country's massive state oil industry) as an intolerable restriction on their ability to be the dominant beneficiaries of the country's oil wealth. They have used their control over the media to blast Chavez for destroying the economy, supporting Cuban President Fidel Castro, antagonising the U.S. government, expropriating private property and for being a `dictator'. They have equated his limited social reforms with communism, and even accuse him of using the social programmes that have improved the lives of the poor as a way to buy votes.

THE U.S. government, of course, disliked him for all these reasons, but the Bush administration has also been wary of Chavez because of his potential in building up regional support to oppose U.S. policies in Latin America. Chavez has been friendly with Fidel Castro, who has sent hundreds of Cuban doctors to work in Venezuela's community health programmes. He has supported Kirchner of Argentina in his struggle against the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The governing Workers Party (P.T.) in Brazil endorsed him in the referendum, as did the country's CUT workers' union.

Recently, the Venezuelan government has also moved towards deeper regional trade integration, with Venezuela joining the Southern Cone trading bloc Mercosur as an associate member. Various oil sector and economic cooperation agreements have been signed with Argentina, Caribbean countries and even Colombia. Chavez's anti-U.S. stance is finding a growing audience in the hemisphere, given the rising popular hatred of free-market economic policies and U.S. domination in the region.

So Chavez and his government remain significant threats to the U.S. government and to the domestic Venezuelan right-wing oligarchy. While the U.S. government may have accepted the popular mandate of the referendum, it is unlikely to let this government carry on peacefully. Even though the financial markets welcomed the result because it ensured stability in a world already troubled by high oil prices, the political pressures within the U.S. will ensure that Chavez remains under attack. Apparently, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has already begun elaborating plans to counter Venezuela's influence in Latin America in the wake of the referendum.

Significantly, this attitude of the U.S. is likely to persist whatever be the result of the November U.S. presidential elections. The views of George Bush on the matter are well known. But even the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, has issued repeated statements calling for greater "pressure" to be exerted on the Chavez government, accusing it of using "extra-legal measures", creating "a haven for narco-terrorists" and sowing "instability in the region". Kerry has also called for tripling the funding for the NED, which has been such an important source of funding for the right-wing Opposition in Venezuela.

So this referendum was certainly a victory for progressive and democratic forces, but it is unfortunately likely that the war is still not over.

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