Venezuela President Hugo Chávez is widely depicted by his opponents, by Washington and by much of the mainstream media as a dictator-in-the-making, a Latino tyrant who is turning his country into another Cuba, destroying the economy, trampling on human rights and fomenting class hatred.
But the surprise is that when Chavez faces what many say is the world’s first recall referendum on an elected head of state Aug. 15, he may win, even in a clean and fair vote, according to regional experts.
“He’s going to win,” said Larry Birns of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. “He’s going to win because there are more poor than rich.”
Other analysts caution that a Chávez victory is by no means assured, and that the vote promises to be close.
Still, with some polls showing him surging, even some of Chávez’s critics concede he may triumph. “It could go either way,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the centrist Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Shifter criticizes what he calls Chávez’s authoritarian tendencies and economic mismanagement.
But Chávez “is a good campaigner and he’s got resources. He can mobilize his base. He seems to be in a strong position.” Shifter added, though, “There’s also a lot of discontent.”
Yet even some of the most discontented acknowledge that Chávez has a good chance of triumphing. “I think the opposition is underestimating the government’s popularity, and certainly its ability to win the referendum,” activist Alexandra Beech wrote recently on the anti- Chávez website www.vcrisis.com.
If Chávez does win, many observers and even Chávez opponents such as Beech contend it will be largely because of an array of “missions” or social programs he has launched, financed in part by a windfall from soaring oil prices. Venezuela sits atop the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and is one of the top four foreign suppliers to the United States. Yet most of the population is impoverished, the result of decades of political mismanagement and corruption by a wealthy elite, according to experts.
Chávez rode a wave of disgust over the corruption to the presidency in 1998, and this year is spending at least $1.7 billion in revenue from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela to accelerate social programs benefiting slum dwellers and peasants. They range from a literacy campaign that the government says has taught more than 1 million people to read in the last year, to a land reform program it asserts has handed out 5 million acres to 116,000 peasant families now organized in cooperatives.
Under an agreement with Cuba, Chávez’s government also has dispatched 10,000 Cuban doctors into slums where most Venezuelan doctors would never dare tread.
Officials say public spending under Chávez has quadrupled on education and tripled on healthcare, with infant mortality rates declining.
“This is a big story,” said Mark Weisbrot, an analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “I think it’s the first time in at least 20 years that anyone in this hemisphere is poised to win an election … because of what he’s done for poor people — not promised, but actually done. This is a truly rare event.”
While some observers compare the programs to the social transformations waged by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the early 1980s or by President Salvador Allende in Chile in the early 1970s, others dismiss such comparisons and contend Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” as window dressing that has failed to improve living conditions.
“I certainly wouldn’t call it a revolution or a transformation,” Shifter said. “This is sort of old clientelist politics, and it works in some ways.”
Chávez, he said, is “a revolutionary in rhetoric only.”
Steve Johnson of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington also is skeptical. “Chávez is just a more toxic version of the manipulative elites that have governed Venezuela in the past,” he said, adding: “I’m not a populist. I don’t believe in giveaway programs and strong presidents and messianic leaders.”
Yet even some of Chávez’s most searing critics are acknowledging that his “missions” are highly popular and should be endorsed by the opposition leadership rather than lambasted.
“We do see positive things in what Chávez has done,” said Maritza Ramírez de Agena, an anti- Chávez activist in New Jersey who helps lead the www.11abril.com group. The missions are “a good initiative,” she said. “I just don’t think they’ve been implemented well.”
Beech said she recently traveled into Chávez territory in Caracas and spoke to adults in a Misión Robinson program in Catia who were studying for their high school degree. They were meeting in a brightly painted community center that was once a public toilet.
“I told them that pollsters said that people in the barrio were scared to admit they support the vote [against Chávez],” Beech wrote. “They chuckled.” She said the students, including a 70-year-old woman, scoffed at assertions Chávez is trying to “indoctrinate” them with communist propaganda, or that the government pays them to attend Chávez rallies.
What Beech did by traveling into the slums of Caracas is something few journalists covering the Venezuela story bother to do in depth or at all, according to some experts. They contend the media has focused on the opposition to Chávez and largely missed the story of how millions of poor Venezuelans support him — and may keep him in office. Weisbrot calls it the worst foreign coverage he has seen in decades, including what he called the largely slanted coverage of the Sandinistas.
“I think the mainstream media has been terrible on this,” Weisbrot said. “They’ve helped to create an impression that Venezuela is politically repressive. It’s probably one of the least repressive countries in the hemisphere.”
He says the vibrant Chávez opposition movement regularly holds massive protest marches, and the stridently anti- Chávez local media is permitted to operate without restraint, with people sometimes even calling for a coup on national television.
“His rhetoric may not differ from [Fidel] Castro’s, but his performance certainly has,” Birns said. “There aren’t people in jail on human rights grounds. The opposition is mainly free to bark all it wants. The case against Chávez is very flimsy.”
Chávez critics disagree, and say he is packing the Supreme Court with loyalists, inciting violence against journalists in the largely opposition-controlled media, and accumulating power over the government, the judiciary, the military and the state oil company. They charge that his rhetoric has sharply polarized the country and raised the specter of civil war.
“He’s not Pinochet and he’s not Castro and he’s not Milosevic and he’s not Hitler,” Shifter said. “But there are lots of signs where the risk is real, that you could begin to see much greater authoritarianism.”
His detractors point out that Chávez, a former paratrooper, led his own coup attempt in 1992 against Pérez, a symbol of the nation’s corrupt political establishment.
In a more recent example, Henrique Capriles, mayor of the Baruta section of Caracas, has spent two months in jail on charges of inciting an anti- Chávez mob to attack the Cuban embassy during the failed 2002 coup.
Capriles says he was trying to calm the crowd, which smashed cars and cut off electricity to the embassy, and that he considers himself a political prisoner.
Prosecutors say he may have committed a crime, and is being held without bail because he is a flight risk. Chávez supporters contend the real threat to democracy is the opposition, segments of which launched a failed coup in April 2002 during which Chávez was “kidnapped” by military rebels for two days and every democratic institution in the country, from the Supreme Court to Congress to the constitution, was eliminated. Later that year, the opposition waged an illegal two-month strike that shut down the crucial oil industry.
More recently, former President Carlos Andres Pérez said Chávez “must die like a dog, because he deserves it.” Perez told the Venezuelan daily El Nacional last month, “I am working to remove Chávez [from power]. Violence will allow us to remove him. That’s the only way we have.”
He added, “We can’t just get rid of Chávez and immediately have a democracy. … We will need a transition period of two to three years to lay the foundations for a state where the rule of law prevails.” Most opposition leaders publicly distanced themselves from the comments.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, many observers contend that even if Chávez loses, he stands a strong chance of winning a regular election a month later if the Supreme Court rules he is eligible to run in the race to finish out his original term, which ends in 2006. “Incredible that this late in the game, the opposition still doesn’t have an obvious leader,” anti- Chávez activist Beech wrote.
She remains critical of many aspects of Chávez’s administration, contending it has failed to build houses, create jobs or generate economic growth. Chávez supporters dismiss such assertions, saying, for instance, that the 2002-2003 oil strike sabotaged the economy, which now is expected to lead Latin America this year with 12 percent growth, according to the U.N.-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Those issues aside, Beech said that whether Chávez remains in office or not, Venezuela will never be the same. “The big message today was: The people have woken up,” she said. One woman at the community center “said that whoever is the next president will have to deal with the poor, that the poor will never allow governments to forget them again. That may be the wisest observation I have heard recently.”
Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday who worked in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, mainly as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press.