A First-Hand Impression of the Venezuelan Opposition

Almost every wealthy person from the opposition I have met in Venezuela has claimed two things that contrast with the analysis of Chavez’s foreign critics. First, they say Chavez has virtually no support, even the poor are against him. Second, Chavez planned and prepared the 2002 coup in advance and had his followers perform it.

Credit: Alessandro Parma

“Chavez is like Boves, he wants to kill everybody with a house and give everything they own to the thieving blacks!” said my landlady’s son, Ale, who was wide-eyed and leaning forward in his wicker chair. We sat on a large, plush balcony with a wide, open view of the Caracas nightline. The twinkling lights of a barrio made a great orange mass in the distant darkness behind him.

I said, “But Ale, Chavez has been in government for 8 years now, if he wanted to kill all the rich and redistribute their property why hasn’t he done it already?” Ale leaned back for a moment and said, “That is also like Bove, he used to tell the oligarchs that they would be safe, and they could do a deal and they would believe him and then he would let the blacks kill them anyway. He was very evil.”

The conversation I had with Ale that night on my landlady’s balcony was like many I have had with Venezuela’s wealthy elite, or, oligarchs as they are often called here. Fiercely class-based, filled with amazing self-delusions and deep bitterness all from fully adult, educated professionals. Ale was a 27-year-old lawyer with a postgraduate degree.

This is one of the things that has surprised me most about my time in Venezuela. I had expected the wealthy elite to oppose Chavez because of his policies favoring the poor. I thought their argument would roughly follow the lines of British critics of the Venezuelan government. These say that Venezuela is being run by a slightly crazy demagogue, who abuses his official power, indulges in anti-market policies, but who nonetheless is popular with the poor.

The argument is made that Chavez’s poor supporters in the slums, or barrios, are essentially stupid. They are swayed by his rhetoric and easily bribed by things such as free healthcare and education. British critics don’t deny his popularity, seeing Chavez’s 9 election victories, winning of the recall referendum and overcoming a coup attempt aided by mass demonstration, as hard to deny.

Finding a wealthy opposition supporter in Venezuela who opposes the government on this basis is almost impossible. That is, most wealthy Venezuelans here also believe that the poor of the barrios are stupid and easily bribed. In fact, many refer to the poor as ‘monos’ or monkeys, mainly due to people in the barrios being darker skinned on the whole, while the upper classes are typically much paler.

However, almost every wealthy person from the opposition I have met in Venezuela has claimed two things that contrast with the analysis of Chavez’s foreign critics. First, they say Chavez has virtually no support, even the poor are against him. A small but devoted gang of his followers wildly rig elections in their favor, while the majority of Venezuela is actively against him. They laugh at the election results which say he gets 60% of the vote. They say 6% is a much more accurate figure.

This belief that there is absolutely no popular support for the government then leads on to the second, even more outlandish claim. According to these wealthy Venezuelans, Chavez could not have been restored to power by large demonstrations as the basis for these does not exist. In fact, Chavez planned and prepared the 2002 coup in advance and had his followers perform it. He then stage-managed his return to power and used the whole “charade” to increase his own power. For this reason they refer to 2002 as an auto-golpe, a “self-coup” – a term first coined in Peru when then-President Fujimori disbanded the legislature there.

Stunning though these positions may sound, given the overwhelming evidence against them, they are widely held amongst the wealthy opposition. The reasons why so many of these educated professionals are willing to believe these things are numerous. They include the economic and mental trauma Venezuela suffered in the 80’s, the polarization between wealthy and poor that exists in most of the third world, and the ceaseless efforts of the opposition media to do whatever it takes to remove Chavez.

Venezuela used to be considered a first world country because of its tremendous oil wealth. In the 1980’s, when oil prices dramatically declined, so did the economic situation in Venezuela. Poverty increased from 18% of the population in 1980 to over 65% by 1996. This incredibly rapid collapse in living standards has helped create the political atmosphere of crisis that allowed Chavez to come to power and the peculiar mentality of the wealthy opposition.

Although the major decline in the lifestyles of some upper and middle classes took place during the 80’s and 90’s, it worsened even further after the 2003 oil strike. This caused huge economic damage. It is the single most quoted reason why upper and middle class people I have met have said they lost their jobs. Even though this strike was organized and led by the opposition, they are not held even partly responsible. All the blame is placed with Chavez. He has become the scapegoat for all their rage and frustration from the past decades of decline.

My landlady, Señora Carmen, had an apartment like dozens I had seen in Venezuela. Well decorated, but with everything from the 1970s. Her situation was representative of many other upper class people I met in Venezuela. She and her family had seen a distinct drop in their lifestyle over the 80’s and 90’s, with a reduction in foreign trips and luxury purchases. After the oil strike their lifestyle declined further, as her son was fired from his job at the Foreign Relations Ministry.

Ale said he had been unfairly fired for being an opposition supporter. I asked him how his employers knew this and he said he told his employers at the Ministry he hated the government, wanted it brought down, and that he had participated in the strike. He even implied he sabotaged some of his work.

I came to live with them after that point. Señora Carmen was eating vegetable soup most nights and rarely bought anything. When guests or other family would visit, though, she would make a great show of purchasing expensive things. Her concern for her public face was supreme. She asked me to tell her neighbors that I was a foreign exchange student rather than someone paying rent, as she did not want them to know she needed help paying the bills. Her and her son’s humiliation at their loss of status was turned into hatred of Chavez.

Added to this sense of loss felt by former upper class people such as Senora Carmen is a feeling that wealth is their birthright. Nepotism and corruption is widespread and many wealthy professionals have admitted to me they got their jobs through family connections, without embarrassment. The same people will quickly say the only reason the other 80% of Venezuela’s population is impoverished is because they are lazy drunks. There is a general impression that some people are born to live in wealth and comfort, to rule politically, and others are born to have lives defined by insecurity and poverty.

There is also an elemental aspect to upper class identity and their hatred of the poor. It is almost as if it is deep inside them, integrated with their being, conditioned by their country’s history. In many ways the situation has changed little from the times of the conquistadors. Many of the wealthy still live in glamorous apartment buildings immediately on top of desperately poor barrios. Multiply fortified with steel fences, electric wire, armed guards, and multiple security gates, they are surrounded by shoddy slum buildings with haphazard access to water and electricity.

This history of mortal fear of the masses by the elite in Venezuela is rich and full. The story my landlady’s son was telling about Boves is illuminating on this matter. José Tomás Boves was a leading Spanish Loyalist during Venezuela’s war of independence. A mortal enemy of Chavez’s hero Simon Bolivar, opposition figures compare Chavez to Boves anyway.

As Ale told it, “Boves was a low-born white who had to associate with black slaves after he was thrown out of the Spanish Navy. He resented the wealthy whites who looked down on him and lusted for revenge against them. When the war of independence came he used his knowledge of the blacks to get them to rise up against the oligarchs. He led a slave army which routinely killed whites, women and children, everyone, and took their property. Boves came to one town with his army and entered it to discuss terms.”

“Boves had a meeting with the terrified oligarchs and told them they didn’t have to worry. They could give up a bit of gold which he could give to his army and they would be left alone. The oligarchs were gratefully relieved and Bove suggested having a ball to celebrate. The wealthy of the town danced and drank and Bove was a very charming host. Then at one point in the evening Bove gave a signal and his black guards came into the ballroom and killed everyone. Then they entered the town and took everything”.

The ballroom story is probably more myth than fact, especially as Bove has been demonized by generations of Venezuelan writers. It does demonstrate the deep fears that wealthy Venezuelans have regarding their privileged situation and Chavez. A combination of bitterness about economic forces beyond their control and a deep essential fear of the lower classes combines to create a astonishingly fierce hatred of Chavez and a willingness to believe anything bad about him or his supporters.

Injected into this mix is a media that is willing to say and do anything to depose Chavez. They are in large part responsible for the idea of the auto-golpe and that Chavez has no popular support along with many other even more extreme fantasies. One of the main opposition TV channels, Globovision, literally dedicates 24 hour coverage exclusively to why the government is corrupt, evil and actually a dictatorship. The other channels, with the exception of the state broadcaster, are pretty much the same although they show some soap operas and movies as well.

Almost all of the newspapers contribute to this, routinely publishing things which are clearly not true. Even the highest quality daily, El Universal, makes ridiculous claims such as recently saying corruption and nepotism have only existed in Venezuela since this government arrived. There is one large pro-government newspaper that is pretty much as biased, but in the other direction and one more neutral newspaper.

Even though most of the wealthy elite I have met would admit that the media they read is very biased and often prints things that are not at all accurate, they believe a lot of it anyway. It seems like it is one of the few places they can find solace in this confusing and disturbing new world. In this situation, even wilder theories and assumptions abound.

Danilo Anderson, a state prosecutor assassinated while investigating the 2002 coup, blew himself up. The US is actively supporting Chavez and put him into power. Venezuela is actually a Cuban communist dictatorship right now. The denial of government jobs to opposition supporters is like what Hitler did to the Jews. The myths of the auto-golpe and 5% support for Chavez are just the two most common and the strongest of many others. Unfortunately many educated Venezuelans seem to believe their own propaganda.

On of the tragic results of this is what it means for Venezuelan democracy. A significant minority in the opposition believe so strongly that every election is so hopelessly rigged that there is no point in participating. The most famous of these is the 350 movement named after the article in the constitution permitting for civil disobedience. They call those participating in elections traitors who receive bribes from the government in return for standing in elections.

As an alternative, they advocate violent direct action against the government with the aim of its overthrow. At one of their rallies, this October, they played a taped message of Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez, one of the Generals who participated in the 2002 coup. His eagerly received speech urged them to fight to the death against the “dictatorship” using, “whatever means necessary.” One of the 350 movement’s leading figures, Patricia Poleo, is in hiding after being charged with helping to conspire to murder Danilo Anderson, who was investigating her participation in the same coup.

What has been described above does not cover the whole of the Venezuelan opposition or the wealthy in Venezuela. I have also met people from the barrio who are bitterly against Chavez, though I have met many more in favor. He also has his middle class supporters. Many of Chavez’s followers are no angels either. Amongst other things many have a tendency to be uncritical of the government and call anyone who opposes the government “fascists.”

There are legitimate things that the government and Chavez can be criticized for, such as his monarchical style and certain abuses of state authority. The way a current electoral loophole called morochas (twins) is not only being permitted by the majority pro-Chavez Electoral Council, but is also actively being promoted by by the governing MVR party is regrettable, to say the least.

People have the right and the duty to oppose policies they don’t agree with. However, if there is going to be some element of reconciliation between the two sides and eventual peace in a country that often looks like its could fall in to civil war, the opposition has to recognize mistakes it made in the past and move a long way towards a compromise with the government and its supporters. There are some encouraging signs that this may be happening, such as the employers’ federation and former coup-sponsor, Fedecamaras, recently agreeing to co-operate with the government where it helps to develop Venezuela.

There is still a long way the wealthy opposition needs to go, though, if it ever hopes to get its legitimate concerns considered or to regain some sort of political representation. The psychological blockages to this, both economic and historical, may make it impossible for them ever to reach this stage. They may just have to rot in hate and self-delusion. If they don’t break out of their mental situation regarding contemporary Venezuela, then the consequences could unfortunately be violent for tomorrow.