Hugo Chávez, wearing his ‘trademark’ red beret and shirt, stands beneath a giant portrait of himself. He sings, quite tunefully, a patriotic song. Picking up a pair of binoculars, he scans the audience. ‘What an immense crowd!’ he mutters, as if to himself, feigning surprise. He recites from a volume of poetry by Venezuelan women, then from the sparse writings of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator from Spanish colonial rule. He launches into a familiar assault on Mr Danger, The Donkey – President Bush. He announces the formation of a reserve force of a million Venezuelans against the threat of invasion from the Evil Empire of the North.
After two hours of this, the tropical sun sets quite suddenly on perhaps half a million chavistas gathered in downtown Caracas. It is not difficult to see why anti-chavistas believe that President Hugo Chávez, a gifted performer, is a demagogue at heart. They point out that on this day, 4 February 2006, Chávez has chosen to mark not the 7 years since he was first elected President, but the 14 years since he staged an abortive military coup. He insists this launched his Bolivarian Revolution.
What the anti-chavistas are rather less quick to admit is that Chávez has won six relatively clean elections since December 1998. No other political figure in the world is more democratically approved, at least by conventional measures. Venezuelan jails are not overflowing with political prisoners. People do not speak in whispers. Far from it – in print and on screen, hostility to Chávez is the norm. No-one is being mercilessly bled dry of their fabulous or ill-gotten wealth, despite the pervasive poverty of the country.
All this the anti-chavistas must surely know. Other things they scarcely seem to notice. Their personal hatred of the man bears all the hallmarks of the ancestral racism that still infests Creole (white) dynastic oligarchies right across Latin America. For Chávez is, like most Venezuelans, a zambo, a man of mixed race. As a result, he is viewed with contempt by those who harbour the conviction that ‘their’ country has been stolen from them – and mean to get it back.
Quite how they plan to do this is, however, no longer very clear. A bungled military coup in April 2002 – staged with not-so-covert US complicity – left Chávez with a firmer grip on the armed forces. A general strike in December 2002 was soon confined to the élite oil industry and collapsed, handing Chávez tighter control over this enormous liquid asset. In August 2004 a presidential recall referendum – exploiting a clause in the new Constitution, which the opposition claims to despise – was conclusively lost. Abstention from elections in 2005 handed the National Assembly over to Chávez supporters. More abstention is just about the best the opposition has to offer to the next Presidential elections in December.
If undue power has indeed accrued to Hugo Chávez, then the ineptitude of the opposition is mightily responsible for handing it to him. The term escualidos (‘squalid ones’) has stuck to the more frenzied of his enemies. At the very least, Chávez can be credited with saving the Venezuelan people from the chaotic, blood-soaked fate that would surely overtake them if the opposition in its current form ever got its way. The dismal truth is that there is no political opposition worthy of the name – nor has there been for a generation. How has it come to this?
The history of Venezuela tells us something, though in an overheated political atmosphere it tends to evaporate. Venezuela came relatively late to liberal democracy, escaping from a prolonged and peculiarly nasty form of military dictatorship only within living memory, in 1958. To forestall its return, such liberal democrats as the Venezuelan élite could offer signed up to a pact, a Punto Fijo (‘Fixed Point’), excluding all others and adding a dose of virulent anti-communism for good measure.
At first this went smoothly enough. There were attempts to lay the foundations of a welfare state and to reform the colonial feudalism that still prevailed in the countryside. In 1976 the oil industry was nationalized and a trickle from its enormous wealth began to fill the coffers of the State. Revenues from oil became a substitute for direct taxation. Lacking a firm underpinning, the Fourth Republic duly subsided, busying itself with increasingly corrupt attempts to enforce a narrow neoliberal agenda, with the extreme injustice this invariably produces. Though he denies it, the rise to power of Chávez is very much a product of this sclerotic Fourth Republic. His Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR) is a loose electoral alliance of political factions excluded from the Punto Fijo, its ranks swelled by a goodly number of political careerists jumping ship.
Booming State revenues from oil – la maldición negra, ‘the black curse’, as it is sometimes styled – have allowed Chávez to repeat what the Punto Fijo began and the vast majority of Venezuelans evidently require of their government as a bare minimum. This is not Nirvana: a glass of clean water here; timely medical treatment there; a plot of land; the ability to read; a modicum of justice and respect.
As with the Fourth Republic, oil revenues have enabled Chávez to skirt around the creaking structures of state and society – and, incidentally, the diktats of the World Bank and IMF. Should the price of oil ever fall, or were he himself to be struck by a bus, his welfare reforms could well vanish, leaving only endemic corruption and violent crime.
If this were all, and the outcome rested entirely on the extraordinary figure of Hugo Chávez, then a good deal of pessimism about the future would be in order.
However, there’s more. A paradox emerged towards the end of what Chávez told his supporters on 4 February 2006. Not for the first time, he issued instructions for local co-ordinating committees and assemblies to form the skeleton of what he called a ‘protagonistic’ government ‘of the streets’.
This was accompanied by the one aptly named ‘Bolivarian’ element of his plans – a renewed appeal to Bolívar’s failed ambition for Latin American unity, this time against the Evil Empire of the North, rather than Spain.
A paradox this: a powerful leader ordering the people to take power. Meanwhile, the ‘black curse’ that underpins Chávez’s popularity also makes him a prime target for a violent assault orchestrated by the US, which gets 15 per cent of its oil from Venezuela.
Chávez is no fool. He understands the evolving strength of the social movements in his country, created in the political vacuum left by the Punto Fijo. These new structures make him more radical as he goes. Can the Bolivarian Revolution provide them with a fresh and durable form of political expression? The question still hangs in the air.
As for Latin America, the Bolivarian project is at least under way, tentative though it may be. There are tangible results. Without the barter of Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors and teachers the current transformation of Venezuelan healthcare and education could not have begun. Without the barter of Venezuelan oil for Argentinean debt that country would have been unable to implement successful alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy. Though President Lula and Brazil may, for the time being, have fallen behind, Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina have been joined in some sort of loose ‘Bolivarian’ alliance by Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile, and they in turn may soon be joined by Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico.
What brings them together is, apparently, the tumultuous movements against the neoliberal agenda, currently epitomized by the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Behind this there is, however, something more profound. From a continent that has, over the years of betrayal and repression, gained a little more immunity to false dawns, the true identity of Latin America is finally beginning to emerge. In the forefront are its indigenous peoples, who never bought in – and were not admitted – to the Creole, post-colonial settlement. But it extends beyond that to the overwhelming majority of Latin Americans, transforming the mixed ethnic origins of an Evo Morales in Bolivia or a Hugo Chávez in Venezuela from political liability to political asset.
Whether or not one calls this revolution – social, Bolivarian or otherwise – is neither here nor there. The fact is that we are witnessing a massive democratic transformation, a new destination slowly emerging from the deceitful mists of Latin American history. Only the neoliberal agenda, fuelled by greed and violent nihilism, stands in the way.
I get a random glimpse of this transformation when I venture out of Caracas. I intend to visit workers in a co-operative paper factory in nearby Valencia, only to discover that they have gone to Caracas. At a loose end, I wander the crowded streets of the city and come across a group wearing crash helmets and sitting on scooters. They work in the postal service, Ipostel, and are far from happy with something – its hiring policy, I think. I begin to take photographs and am politely asked who I am.
No longer gagged by the old trade-union regime, which fell in with the Punto Fijo and orchestrated the strike against Chávez, their rhetoric flows freely from a loudhailer.
‘Here is the Bolivarian Constitution,’ booms a man who waves a tiny blue book. ‘It says that power belongs to the people. We are the people!’
‘And now, a renowned journalist has come all the way from England to speak to us.’
I am handed a microphone. In complete ignorance of what is going on, unaware of my renown and mindful of my journalistic disinterest, I deliver a few trusty words of international solidarity to the bemused citizens of downtown Valencia. My shaking hand is shaken by all and I am embraced to the point of suffocation by a huge postwoman.
A few days later I head for the airport on my way out of the country, through the ruins of coastal towns where perhaps 50,000 people lie buried – if they were not swept out to sea – by the terrifying landslides of 1999. The Venezuelan people, still burning the cheapest petrol in the world and dislodging the fragile slopes of the barrios where most of them still live, have yet to come to terms with the destruction of their own, fabulous environment. But at least they are beginning to know that it is truly theirs. And they can now surely glimpse, from time to time, a world more truly of their own making.