He looks like he could be the driver of the most decrepit taxi on the streets of Caracas. He could be a streetsweeper, a waiter, a shoe shiner. The tiny upper and middle classes of Venezuela think he is uncivilized. But to the three-quarters of Venezuelanos living in poverty, he is a mirror image of themselves. He is Everyman.
When he addresses the nation on the popular Sunday broadcast, “Hello Mr. President,” his somewhat darker-skinned crowds gather in Plaza Bolivar to listen to him carry on over government-installed television screens and radio speakers. For five hours. He answers questions from everyday citizens in an engaging conversational tone, without notes, without hesitation, but with an air of calm informality that sets him apart from the pretentiousness of his competition.
And then, without any warning, albeit at regular intervals in the broadcast, he will bathe his detractors - the richest and most powerful people in the history of the world - with a shower of insults that confirm his peculiar position in global politics. For Hugo Chavez is not merely the President of this poor majority, but the long-stifled expression of its collective historical frustration and the embodiment of its hopes. Hopes that would have seemed terribly naïve only a few years ago.
Some would say that those hopes are still naïve. Like many populist-left leaders before him, Chavez has become an absolutely intolerable barrier to business as usual in this hemisphere. Venezuela’s oligarchs and free marketeers everywhere both hate and fear him, for nothing succeeds like success. And if his administration is allowed to succeed in South America, a new cadre of followers might rise across the continent, threatening historical privilege and economic privatization like never before.
Not even Cuba poses such a threat, for as an island nation, it has been more easily isolated. What Fidel Castro has accomplished may be miraculous considering the challenges he has faced -attacks, embargoes, harassment, covert destabilization efforts- but Cuba’s potential for democracy was subverted by this history. Fidel seems to have recognized this himself, having reportedly told his friend Hugo that he has an historic opportunity in front of him, and he should not waste it.
For by contrast, Venezuela is a vast territory, and Hugo Chavez was twice elected by overwhelming majorities in this oldest democracy on the continent. By all accounts, the nation’s energy resources are legendary. Chavez is raising the cost of oil royalties paid by Exxon-Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, and supporting OPEC production limits instead of overpumping as his predecessors have done. This income could be diverted from its customary path to the pockets of the oligarchy and distant stockholders. It could build a modern egalitarian society.
The untold story in Venezuela is that this new society is sprouting legs and moving off the drawing board. Chavez has not yet turned the tide on poverty - not by any means - but he has set the stage for a fundamental shift in economic and educational opportunity. He banned school entrance registration fees for students which previously served as a barrier to much of the child population. “Bolivarian” schools have opened in poor neighborhoods, often maintained and run by parents and volunteers, but supported by the government. Literacy is increasing rapidly as millions of new students have entered school.
Chavez’s “Inside the Barrio” health plan is setting up clinics in the poorest communities, often staffed by respected Cuban doctors and nurses who are on loan to a society that in return provides cheap oil to the island nation. Some of the better new Venezuelan students, previously unable to even dream of college, have found themselves enrolled in Cuban medical schools.
His land reform legislation limits individual ownership to 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres), and allows idle land to be redistributed to peasant cooperatives, which will likely lead to much greater fairness in a nation where 2% of the people own 60% of the territory.
The Venezuelan oligarchy and various international entities connected to Venezuela’s natural resource food chain have taken notice, and are coordinating actions to bring Chavez down. Their task is formidable, because of his popularity and elected status. But they maintain several overwhelming advantages.
Most useful is information control. Almost all of the private television and radio stations and all but one of the major newspapers in the country are owned and operated by those who loathe the Chavez administration. The feeds that go to the mainstream international media come almost exclusively from these sources, and the hype and spin against Chavez is spectacular, even by today’s cynical standards.
The International Monetary Fund has indicated that it supports a transitional government and was reported by Caracas’ right-wing El Nacional to be willing to bankroll those who would replace Chavez. The National Endowment for Democracy, long used as a cover for the CIA projects, brought several opposition leaders to Washington for consultations in the months preceding the attempted coup in 2002. Fedecarmaras, an unnatural alliance of upper-middle class trade unionists and business owners that called for a strike two days before the coup attempt in order to promote the impression of chaos, is waiting backstage. Coke, along with Venezuelan-owned Polar breweries, recently provided bus service for members of the opposition, and/or help with blockades during both violent and non-violent protests by the opposition.
And now the two major party candidates for the U.S. Presidency -both rich, both Yale graduates, and both tightly bound to the oil industry- have begun a verbal rivalry to see which is the most aggressive anti-Chavista.
The list of privileged rogues in this alliance will continue to disrupt everyday life and the economy of Venezuela. The present referendum fiasco is merely its latest tactic in a disinformation campaign. What remains to be seen is whether a steady diet of it can exhaust the will of Chavez supporters or lead Chavez himself into making a serious mistake with the military forces at his disposal.
In the old English passion play, Everyman asks Death to give him more time. Death complies, although Everyman eventually must succumb, taking only his good deeds with him to the afterlife. Chavez is asking for more time. But in the Venezuelan version of the play, his good deeds may never be fully implemented. And Death, in some form, may be forced upon him prematurely.
Gary Payne is a professor of sociology who teaches at Central Lakes College in Minnesota. He recently visited Venezuela for a few weeks.