A Presidential Option for the Poor in Venezuela?

Though uncertain about Chávez, Sister Begoña decided to take her chances with the poor. "They were the first to really understand the Chávez project," she says. If supporting Chávez was a mistake, she would rather err with the poor than against them.

Sister Begoña Plágaro was highly skeptical of left-leaning Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. “I grew up in Spain under Franco,” she says. “I know how dangerous it can be to mix political leadership with military leadership.”

Begoña, a religious sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart, has worked since 1991 in a barrio called El Estanque, one of the thousands of desperately poor “squatter neighborhoods” that surround Venezuela’s capital city. Though uncertain about Chávez, Sister Begoña decided to take her chances with the poor. “They were the first to really understand the Chávez project,” she says. If supporting Chávez was a mistake, she would rather err with the poor than against them.

Far from being alone, Sister Begoña is one of thousands of religious workers at the base in Venezuela who say the Chávez government is honoring the gospel mandate of a “preferential option for the poor” claimed by Catholic bishops at a 1968 meeting in Medellín, Colombia.

“With all its errors, Chávez’s government is still trying to put into practice the words of the bishops,” says Father Mario Grippo, a member of Charles de Foucauld’s order of the Little Brothers of Jesus who has worked on a farming cooperative in the Venezuelan Andes for 28 years. “The bishops themselves are [now] denying what they wrote. But the people see that the government is moving toward the poor.”

More Venezuelans live in poverty than don’t. Between 1978 and 1985, the GDP plummeted while the economic elite fled the country with their capital. Two attempts under former President Carlos Andres Perez to defibrillate the economy with neoliberal models failed spectacularly. More than 400 people were killed in nationwide riots. The stage was set for the rise of Hugo Chávez to the presidency.

Chávez was born in 1954 in a barrio of Sabaneta, a small town in the Andean lowlands on the Guanare River. His parents were schoolteachers. He graduated from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences with master’s degrees in military science and engineering in 1975, followed by studies in political science. He gained national recognition in 1992 in leading a failed coup against the corrupt government of Carlos Andres Perez. In Chávez’ 90 seconds on national television, he told his soldiers to lay down their weapons and took full responsibility for the coup. But, he said, their objectives had not been achieved “por ahora” (“for now”). The next morning graffitti on buildings and bridges all over Venezuela simply said “por ahora.” Chávez’ popular movement had begun.

After two years in prison, Chávez was pardoned by then-President Rafael Caldera and emerged as a politician, organizing a new party called the Movement for the Fifth Republic, based on the principles of the 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar. He was elected president in 1998 and again in 2000, by the largest majority in four decades. He ran on an anti-corruption platform, a promise to break up the old political junta, and a national economic plan based on a “preferential option for the poor.”

For three days IN mid-April 2002, an anti-Chávez movement comprised of oil executives, business leaders, and Venezuela’s labor confederation led a temporarily sucessful coup against the Chávez administration after he fired the top management of the nationalized oil company. About 200,000 people opposed to the firing marched on the company headquarters and then to the presidential palace, where they encountered a pro-government demonstration. Shots rang out. An estimated 34 people were killed in the street demonstrations, most in the pro-Chávez crowd.

Bush administration officials celebrated the “change of government” in Caracas. While Chávez was taken to an undisclosed military prison, the civil-military junta led by Pedro Carmona, head of Venezuela’s largest business organization, showed its true stripes. “Our first official act is the dissolution of the constitution,” shouted Daniel Romero, slated to be the attorney general, on national television. The junta proceeded to dismantle the supreme court and the national assembly and ban the word “Bolivarian” from official discourse.

“It was a terrible night,” recalls Sister Begoña. “People were weeping in the street.”

Catholic Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, since deceased, not only allowed his residence to be a meeting place for the coup planners, but also proudly signed the decree that temporarily swept away the country’s democratic institutions.

By the next morning, the people of Venezuela filled the streets and surrounded the presidential palace. “When the opposition revoked the constitution, the people took it personally,” recalls Pablo Urquiaga, a pastor of a base Christian community in a barrio called Caricuao. “‘That’s our constitution!’ they said. ‘Chávez is our president!’”

By Sunday morning, with the help of the palace honor guard who would not allow an extra-constitutional change of power, Chávez was returned to office. A military coup to install a dictator had been stopped by hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, and by the rebellion of enlisted soldiers who defended the country’s constitution and ignored orders to kill civilians.

It soon became public that Bush administration officials had knowledge of the coup well beforehand. Using the same conduit Ronald Reagan used to fund the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s—the “National Endowment for Democracy”—the administration had funneled money to the Venezuelan opposition. According to the London newspaper The Guardian, Eliott Abrams—who lied to Congress in 1986 and is now a Bush appointee at the National Security Council—gave the go-ahead to the coup leaders, and Otto Reich, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, met numerous times with Carmona, the head of the short-lived junta.

THE PARTICIPATION IN the coup by Cardinal Velasco and other church leaders has had a tremendous negative effect on many Venezuelans. “We do not understand,” says a member of a base Christian community in the Caricuao barrio, “how the church of Jesus Christ could identify with those who oppose the opening of schools and universities to the poor and health care for the poor.”

“I see two churches,” says William, a sports trainer for the youth of a barrio called Nuevo Horizonte, in the hills high above Caracas. “One is the higher church, the institution involved in politics and very distanced from the problems of poor people. The other is the church of the people, the church of the sisters, the church of the priests who are here with us working in the community.”

A lay-led base Christian community formed in the barrio in the mid-1980s, when several women started a small health clinic and community center called Casa de Salud. They met every day for Bible study and to visit the sick, and later conducted a survey of the health and educational needs of the community. The women formed a committee of 10 women who each were responsible for 10 families. “These women visited the families three times each week to make sure that the children were attending school,” says Norma, a Casa de Salud founder. “Then the women organized home schooling to help the children catch up on the curriculum and to make sure they were getting one decent meal each day—either at home or at school.”

In addition, 50 elderly people meet each day for a hot meal and conversation at the community center, which also offers a discount pharmacy and dental clinic and an extensive sports, fitness, and mental health program. Volunteers distribute beans, rice, corn, cereal, and flour to 300 people each week.

“But the center of all this activity,” says Norma, “has always been our faith.” Their faith is strong and moves mountains—specifically the hillside the community has re-terraced to add new buildings to Casa de Salud. But it is not a faith that members of the church hierarchy often see. “Once,” recalls Norma, “the bishop, in his black cassock and scarlet, came with his driver in his Mercedes-Benz to our barrio. He said it was the most horrible place and he hated coming here. I said to myself, this is my life, my reality—can it really be so terrible for him?”

“Chávez came to power saying that the base must be raised up,” says William. “He isn’t afraid to speak the truth about the contradictions of the church. The people feel that we are being taken into account, that we have dignity.”

“But it’s not what Chávez says that matters,” responds Norma. “It is what the people say.”

Has talk OF fighting poverty translated into less poor people? The statistics are hotly disputed, and more time is needed to determine if Chávez’ anti-poverty strategy is succeeding. Gregory Wilpert, a pro-Chávez analyst in Venezuela, asserts that under Plan Bolivar 2000, thousands of schools, hospitals, clinics, homes, churches, and parks have been repaired. He also cites medical treatment for 2 million people, 2 million children vaccinated, the opening of affordable markets, and improved trash collection.

Between 2001 and 2003, banks gave out about $50 million worth of micro-credit. Most of the micro-credit was given to rural, urban, and small-business cooperatives, the building blocks of the government’s economic plan. Venezuela had only about 800 cooperatives when Chávez came to power; now there are an estimated 40,000. Chávez is building his long-term economic strategy around three pillars of poverty reduction: land redistribution, education, and an environment conducive to small-scale private enterprise.

“This is a moderated revolution,” says Rafael Amaro, a teacher and community organizer in Bariquisimeto. “Chávez is not a ‘Cubanist’ and not a communist. He is a micro-capitalist who is using petroleum as the initial basis for internal social development. Chávez’ economic plan emphasizes small businesses, small farms, cooperatives, and food self-sufficiency through rural development. This is a capitalist country with a capitalist economy, but with a foundation of economic justice.”

As with any populist politician, a concern is that Chávez will forget the source of his political authority. The base Christian perspective on this political process is crucial to its success. “People are constantly asking me if I am with Chávez, if I’m a chavista,” says Sister Begoña. “‘No,’ I answer, ‘Chávez is with us.’”

People in the Caricuao barrio embody the gospel admonition to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” “Chávez provides hope and leadership beyond Venezuela,” says one woman. “We have to make sure though that he doesn’t become an idol or become too filled with power. The gospel must always give light to this process. And the people must hold Chávez accountable.”

Chávez does not have a reputation for building bridges. His charismatic style generates a “cult of personality.” He’s got a huge chip on his shoulder about the United States and George W. Bush—arguably justified, but also mixed with spitefulness. He doesn’t appear to be grooming strong leaders within his own political party. He has centralized decision-making and administration. Some say this is because Chávez is circumventing the corrupt and inefficient government infrastructure that he inherited. Others say that he is afraid to build a broader-based party of political leaders who sometimes might disagree with him.

“Chávez, for all his support among Venezuela’s poor, must not let himself become bigger than the people he claims to represent,” says John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America. Chávez’ success at the polls—which includes the 1998 elections, the 1999 approval of the constitution, and the 2000 elections—shows that he knows how to play, and win, at democratic politics.

“But that’s the easy part of democracy,” continues Walsh. “The open question is whether he knows how to lose. Chávez has helped unleash an unprecedented sense of empowerment among Venezuela’s poor. The opposition, for its part, often appears not to comprehend that the clock cannot be turned back; the people are wide awake to their rights and to their power. But Chávez too must understand that the people for whom he claims to speak must have the last word on whether he stays in power or not.”

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. She traveled to Venezuela in January 2004.