Gregory Wilpert a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an english-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the U.S. in 2008 because his wife was named Consul General of Venezuela in New York. Since returning to the U.S. he has been working as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez, after a long fight against cancer, lost that battle. He was a man who lost very few battles.
Now joining us to talk about the life of Hugo Chávez and the significance of some of his achievements and some of his failures is Greg Wilpert. Greg’s a sociologist who lived in Venezuela from 2000 to 2008. He taught at the Central University of Venezuela. He founded Venezuelanalysis. And he wrote the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government.
Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.
GREGORY WILPERT, ADJ. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, BROOKLYN COLLEGE: Thanks for inviting me, Paul.
JAY: So let me ask you sort of a big general question. First, when history looks at the life of Hugo Chávez, what will they think, what will people think will be his biggest, most significant, historic achievement? And then we’ll look at what might be looked at as his failure.
WILPERT: Well, it’s going to be difficult to say, because he’s been such a controversial figure. I mean, perhaps one of the things that will stand out more than any other is precisely his controversy, whereas, you know, some obviously are saying, that is, people who support Chávez, such as myself, will say that he achieved a tremendous amount. He put socialism, the project of socialism back on the map on the world stage. He was one of the driving forces for Latin American integration. And he profoundly changed Venezuelan society, making it a much more egalitarian society than it was before he came into office.
Of course, on the other side, there are people who—his detractors, who’ve been condemning him all along and will say that he was a terrible dictator and things along those lines. It really depends, I guess, who’s writing the history books, so it’s difficult.
JAY: Let’s assume the historian is honest and trying to tell the truth, and let’s forget the biases. Let’s start with the first part of what you said. I mean, it seems to me maybe the most significant thing he did is that he showed that, one, you can use the electorial process to take power and change the fundamental direction of a country—he was able to mobilize the army to support him in doing that—and that he could operate outside the sphere of influence of the United States and not break from the economic sphere. He still sold oil to United States, and he couldn’t break his economy away from the, you know, global economy, which is dominated by American and other kind of finance capital. But on a political level particularly, he was able to take a very independent direction, and that had a lot of influence on Latin America.
WILPERT: Yes, absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the things that he was very good at was precisely to introduce very far-reaching changes in Venezuelan society and to do it by peaceful means.
And, I mean, of course one has to consider, though, one of the reasons he was able to do that is because he in a sense tricked the country’s old elite. That is, when he first ran for office, he was promising a revolution, but he left the details very vague and he had the support of a segment of the country’s old elite. It wasn’t only until shortly after, as he got elected, that he actually showed that he meant what he said in his campaign, which is something that that segment of the old elite that supported him really didn’t expect. And then he radicalized, partly because of their resistance and after the coup attempt. And so, in other words, he got in by means that are not exactly normal or usual. But once he was in, of course, he was kept on being legitimated through elections.
JAY: Yeah, talk a little bit about that moment, that period during the coup, ’cause if I understand it correctly, it really did radicalize him, that he didn’t have such a worked-out agenda in the beginning, but after the coup it turned much more in a socialist direction.
WILPERT: Yes, definitely after the coup, but not only after the coup. There was also the shutdown of the country’s oil industry. After the coup, he actually moderated a little bit. It wasn’t until after the shutdown of the oil industry, the strike, and the management walkout and lockout that he—after he recovered from that, that he really became much more forceful in pushing ahead with a redistribution of the country’s wealth, with the land reform, with a reform of the country’s oil industry. And it wasn’t really until his reelection in 2006 that he declared himself to be a socialist seeking to institute a socialist society in Venezuela, although he campaigned on that. But it wasn’t really until 2006 that he laid out a program, a more detailed program for that.
JAY: So, really quickly, just two or three of what you would consider the most important accomplishments. And then let’s talk about things that and his supporters hoped he would have accomplished and didn’t. But start with some of the numbers of what was accomplished.
WILPERT: Well, I guess in the economic or socioeconomic scale, there’s—the most important thing is having turned Venezuela from being one of the most unequal countries in Latin America to one of the most equal ones, or actually the most equal ones in terms of income. It’s a complete turnaround, and that’s quite dramatic. If you look at statistics about income inequality, Venezuela has now the least income inequality of South America, right after Cuba, in any case.
And then the other thing is that he halved the poverty rate. He decreased the extreme poverty rate by two-thirds.
So those are very important changes in people’s standard of living that have taken place.
And then in the political sphere, I think the most important change was really the democratization and participation of the population, democratization of the polity that took place to a large extent through measures such as the communal councils, people’s participation in social programs, and the introduction of self-managed workplaces and cooperatives and things like that. And so as a result, Venezuela now is considered—or Venezuelans themselves consider their democracy to be one of the most or more democratic than ever. On a scale of one to ten, they now rate their democracy much higher than they did before Chávez than citizens of other countries rate their respective democracies.
JAY: This is based on polling, you’re saying.
JAY: Right. So, actually, before we get into some of the things that didn’t get accomplished, let me just ask one other question, ’cause it goes so much to what may come next, which is I think people who haven’t been to Venezuela and haven’t been into the barrios and places, they don’t quite understand how deep this democratization has gone, that it isn’t just about what happens at the top and who follows Chávez, that there’s been structures created amongst the population in a general way which are—I think it’s going to make it very difficult for things to go back.
WILPERT: Yes, I think so. I mean, the people have been mobilized to an extent that they’ve never been mobilized before and they really feel like they have a part. That is, I’m talking about the people who live in the barrios, in the poor communities feel like they have a part of the governance of the country. And they will not let go of that, or [incompr.] not easily should the opposition gain control again. And so that’s going to be a problem, I think, if the opposition were to come into power and try to abolish these newly created structures.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, if the opposition is to win the election and it’s been already called—apparently, the election’s going to be 30 days, I think, from today, if I have it right—then I don’t know how they govern, given the majority of the people have been so mobilized.
Anyway, let me ask the question, then. What do you think of the two or three things that he hoped, people that supported him hoped would have been accomplished by now and were not?
WILPERT: Well, even though so much poverty has been decreased, it still hasn’t been abolished. I mean, that’s one of the things—and Chávez himself acknowledged this last year, I think, as showing that they’ve reached kind of a floor in terms of how far they were able to reduce poverty, because for the last three years or so it’s actually held steady and it hasn’t gone down any further. So that’s a serious problem, and they haven’t really figured out how to change that.
Another factor, and this goes back to actually his original campaign, that is, in ’98, when he got elected, he wanted to talk—create an efficient state in Venezuela. And the state is actually still as inefficient as it was before, and probably just as much corruption as before. And that’s something that he really hasn’t been able to address.
And the third thing, I would say, is the crime problem. Crime, according to some measures, has actually increased during the Chávez years, and I think the explanation for that is quite simple, that they thought a reduction in poverty would reduce crime, and it just didn’t.
JAY: I mean, Chávez is a man who understood timing in all kinds of ways. Now, his death is untimely for sure. But in a sense, he kind of hung on long enough for Maduro, who’s the vice president, who’s now going to run for president, to carry on Chávez’s legacy. He kind of gave Maduro at least a little bit of time to look presidential. And what is the sort of public reaction to Maduro now over the last few weeks?
WILPERT: It’s been quite favorable. I mean, there was a poll that just came out a couple of weeks ago that basically says that if Maduro were to run against the most likely opposition candidate, which is the same one who ran against Chávez in October, Maduro would win something like 50 to 36 against Capriles Radonski. So he’s got a substantial margin according to that poll. And, yeah, he’s appeared many times in public and has had many opportunities to look presidential.
Now, personally, I think they mismanaged the situation in the sense that they should have declared a temporary absence of the president, for which there is a provision in the Constitution, and people would have complained a lot less about the procedure that has been taking place. They didn’t do that, and so there was a lot of ambiguity as to what the actual process is. And that might continue until the election.
JAY: Now, Maduro in his announcement before his announcement on Tuesday of the death of Chávez, a couple of hours before Chávez was dead, actually, he was being interviewed or doing something on television where—and we have the clip of this in our other story if you look around on our website—he actually suggested that Chávez believed and he believes that the cancer was deliberately inoculated—is that the word?—into Chávez. I mean, they think this is a form of assassination. He said some day they hope a scientific commission will be able to unravel this. I don’t think there’s any evidence of this now; this is sort of them theorizing. Is that right?
WILPERT: Well, Maduro, what he said was that they have some indications that that might be the case, and that they would like to—that he would like to set up a scientific commission to investigate whether there’s any truth to that theory. He didn’t say that this is what happened; he just said that there are some indications that this might have happened. I don’t think it will—I mean, I’m kind of skeptical about how far that will go, but, I mean, if they want to set up a scientific commission, I think they should go ahead and do that.
JAY: Right. And then the other thing—I believe it was on Tuesday as well, that two attaches to the American embassy were expelled, and there was an accusation that one of them had—if I understand this correctly, had met with some members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, with some suggestion—trying to stir up some trouble. What was that about?
WILPERT: Well, it’s not clear what exactly the details of that were, other than exactly what you’re saying, that these military attaches of the U.S. embassy in Venezuela had some kind of secret meeting with Venezuelan military officials, and that there’s some suspicion because of that that they might have been trying to stir up discontent or trying to stir up some kind of subversion of the government or trying to get information. Who knows? And so, anyway, they were expelled from Venezuela and they have 24 hours to leave the country.
And, of course, this doesn’t bode very well for U.S.-Venezuela relations, because I’m sure the U.S. government will retaliate in some way. And they had been working on reestablishing normal diplomatic relations up until now, and so that’s going to be—have a setback right now.
JAY: Alright. Well, we’ll be back to Greg soon over the next few days. Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.
WILPERT: My pleasure. Thanks.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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