Venezuela Rallies Behind a Reformer

Most Venezuelans have three times now in the last six years strongly endorsed Chavez and his program to narrow the grotesque rich/poor gap that afflicts the oil-rich nation. Yet the country's conservative elite is loath to accept the result.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is a cheerfully divisive politician. He calls the business and landowning class in his country “a rancid oligarchy” and the conservative Catholic Church a “tumour.” U.S. President George Bush is a leader to be despised while Cuba’s autocratic Fidel Castro is a friend and role model. Still, most Venezuelans have three times now in the last six years strongly endorsed Chavez and his program to narrow the grotesque rich/poor gap that afflicts the oil-rich nation of 25 million. They supported him in elections in 1998 and 2000, by a respectable near-60 per cent margin each time. And they did it again this past weekend, in a referendum. Yet the country’s conservative elite is loath to accept the result. Even before the final votes were tallied in Sunday’s referendum to recall Chavez from office and hold new elections — a proposal shot down by 58 per cent to 42 — his foes were crying foul. “We … categorically reject the result,” key opposition figure Henry Ramos Allup said. “We have to take to the streets,” warned Antonio Ledezma. They’ve done it before. This is a repudiation of democracy, pure and simple. And Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government should have the courage to say so, through our membership in the Organization of American States. How many times must Chavez prove he has the right to serve out his term, which runs through 2006? How much turmoil must Venezuelans be put through before the majority’s will can prevail? The former paratrooper turned social crusader first won office in 1998 pledging a “peaceful and democratic” revolution that would privilege the poorest. That is something Venezuela’s two long-ruling rightist parties never contemplated during their decades in power. A year into Chavez’ first mandate Venezuelans overwhelmingly endorsed his plans to rewrite the constitution to reform the political and social system. In 2000 Chavez won re-election by another big margin. And in 2002 Venezuelans rallied to his support during a short-lived coup, and reinstated him. This weekend they reconfirmed their support yet again. Chavez is no saint. He has centralized power in the presidency, bypassed Congress on economic policy and purged his political foes from government, the military and the courts. To many, this is Castro-like autocracy. But he has pumped much of Venezuela’s $24 billion annual oil wealth into his “revolution for the poor.” He has brought in discount food stores where the needy can buy powdered milk, meat, rice and cooking oil at subsidized rates. He has pressed big landowners to cede untilled land to poor farmers, improved housing, built schools and clinics, boosted vocational training, and made people better aware of their rights. And despite his Bush-baiting, Chavez has vowed to continue supplying the United States with 1.5 million barrels a day of oil, 13 per cent of U.S. needs. He is also paying the foreign debt, keeping creditors happy. His reform program, while controversial, is hardly revolutionary. Democracy has only recently taken root in much of Latin America. It is to be cherished, not subverted. If Chavez’ critics want to press for his ouster, they should do so at the polls rather than seek to destabilize a popular elected government. That could plunge Venezuela back into the revolutionary turmoil that gripped much of the region a few decades ago, and which his critics so fear.

Source: Toronto Star