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Chavez rides on

Print edition : Oct 24, 2003 T+T-

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez survives efforts by his political opponents to destabilise his government and vows to carry forward his radical agenda for the benefit of the downtrodden majority.

HAVING survived United States-supported coup attempt and a debilitating nation-wide strike organised by his political opponents, the worse seemed to be over for the charismatic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But his enemies have evidently not given up. Chavez revealed recently that his government had uncovered a plot to assassinate him. Officials of the Venezuela's military intelligence said they had "overwhelming" evidence of American Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) plans to attack Chavez's plane enroute to New York where the President was scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in late September. The President cancelled the trip to the U.N. on the advice of Venezuela's security agencies.

In any case, Chavez has not been a great fan of summits and international meetings. He and Cuban President Fidel Castro are the only two heads of state to identify themselves openly with the anti-globalisation movement. Chavez has criticised world leaders who "go from summit to summit, while their peoples go from abyss to abyss". He has described the U.N. summit as a "dialogue of the deaf".

Chavez recently told the international media in Caracas that he had evidence of CIA's involvement in Venezuelan politics since the April 11, 2002 coup attempt. The government, he said, has a video recording showing CIA officials training Venezuelans in surveillance operations. The Bush administration's role in the coup attempt has been well-documented. Incidentally, the person arrested by security officials in connection with the bomb blast near the presidential palace in late September is an Army officer who had participated in the failed coup.

The ongoing machinations have not prevented Chavez from implementing his radical agenda for the benefit of the downtrodden majority. As the Venezuelan people are getting empowered for the first time, the Opposition, with the open backing of the Bush administration, has been frenetically trying to devise new ways and means to destabilise the government. After failing to oust Chavez through a military coup, the Opposition tried to misuse a clause in the Constitution, which allows a recall referendum after the President has completed three years of his six-year term. The recall clause was inserted in the 1999 Constitution at the insistence of Chavez himself to encourage what he termed as "participatory democracy".

A referendum, however, can be held if only more than 20 per cent of the electorate petition Venezuela's National Electoral Council (NEC). The disparate Opposition parties, united only by their hatred of Chavez and his progressive policies, had started collecting signatures much before Chavez entered the half-way mark of his presidency. The petition for a national referendum on the presidency of Chavez asking for a recall and purporting to contain the signatures of more than 3.2 million voters was handed over to the NEC on the day Chavez completed three years in office in the third week of August.

On September 12, the NEC rejected the petition on technical and legal grounds. A large number of signatures were found to be forged, and in many cases, the names were repeated. Many voters complained that their signatures had been forged. The Opposition parties had given the job of collecting the signatures to a private group called Sumate, which had over 10,000 "volunteers" on its rolls. The Venezuelan government has accumulated enough evidence to prove that Sumate is a private company masquerading as a non-partisan voluntary organisation.

The government wants the Opposition parties themselves to organise the referendum. The majority in the NEC has backed the government's stand. Chavez has denied that his government had in any way put pressure on the NEC. He compared the NEC to a referee in a soccer game and appealed to Venezuelans to accept its decisions "so that the democratic game can go on". The Opposition parties, he said, wants a referendum "according to their preferences". As things stand now, the whole exercise of preparing a petition for a referendum will have to start afresh.

Not that Chavez has cause to be unduly worried about the threat posed by the Opposition. He said recently that it would be "extremely difficult for the Opposition to comply with the requirements for a recall referendum". As recent polls have shown, he remains the most popular politician in Venezuela. He even said he would seek re-election for a second term in office after his current term expires. Chavez has promised to be around until his electoral pledges to transform Venezuelan society radically are implemented. Land reforms are going ahead, and education and health care are reaching impoverished rural areas for the first time. Army barracks are used as classrooms and dispensaries.

When Venezuelan doctors refused to go into rural areas to serve the poor, Chavez approached the Cuban government. Cuba, which has sent its doctors to many countries, was quick to respond. The Venezuelan Opposition, however, tried to portray the Cuban doctors as agents of Fidel Castro out to turn Venezuela into another outpost of socialism in Latin America.

The economic and social reforms that the Chavez government has succeeded in implementing are expected to make him politically invincible. Chavez has already managed to tame the managerial elite, which used to run the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, as a personal fiefdom. Although Venezuela is the fifth biggest oil producer in the world, the revenues from the sale of hydrocarbon products did not benefit the masses. A small aggrandising white Spanish elite monopolised the bountiful resources of the country. Earlier in the year, the Opposition parties orchestrated a nation-wide strike. The PDVSA management and many top employees had played an important role in shutting down Venezuela's oil exports. The country was forced to import oil. However, Chavez eventually got the upper hand. The strike petered out and the Venezuelan government finally got the opportunity to restructure the PDVSA. Oil production is back on track and most of the revenue is being ploughed back for poverty alleviation and related programmes.

Chavez has always insisted that his programmes are not copies of those implemented in Cuba. The Venezuelan leader has emphasised on a mixed economy on the pattern proposed by the social democratic Presidents of Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and now Argentina.

On the foreign policy front, Chavez has reiterated that his government was not supporting the leftist insurgent groups in neighbouring Colombia. Washington and the right-wing Colombian government have alleged that Colombian guerilla groups operate from Venezuelan soil. Chavez told the international media that Venezuela maintained a position of neutrality vis-a-vis Colombian guerilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). "We don't want to support the path of war in Colombia, we want to support the path of peace," he said. Colombia, which is the second largest recipient of American defence largesse after Israel, has been threatening to resort to military action against Venezuela. The Venezuelan Opposition parties have been encouraging Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to launch pre-emptive strikes against their country.

Venezuela under Chavez continues to play an active role in the affairs of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Chavez had restored unity in the oil cartel after Venezuela assumed its presidency three years ago. Chavez had visited all the OPEC countries, including Iraq. He was the first head of state to visit Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991. Chavez recently said that his government would not recognise any representative of the interim Iraqi administration as the official representative in OPEC as "unfortunately there is no government in Baghdad".