Navigating Chávez's Venezuela

Ellsworth argues that Chavez has done things for Venezuela's poor, but he is in the process of re-creating earlier governments' systems of patronage. Delacour responds that while the criticism has a point, it must be contextualized.

By Brian Ellsworth and Justin Delacour
Short URL

Brian Ellsworth’s comments, as posted in Slate.msn.com and on the Latin America Studies Listserv, followed by a response by Justin Delacour

To understand the enigma that is Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, you have to start up high—way up in the hills, in slum neighborhoods like El Paraiso. The view from this poor Caracas barrio helps explain the rise of the ebullient former paratrooper—a small stretch of shiny skyscrapers surrounded by a sea of shacks and shantytown developments, providing a geographic reflection of the Venezuela's brutal economic inequality.

At the very top of the hill stands a monument to the work of President Chávez—a government-run market that sells subsidized food to the poor. Down the road, government contractors are installing a pipeline to bring potable water to communities that frequently go for two weeks without having water delivered to their houses.

Standing in line to buy subsidized groceries, 28-year-old William Rivas, a municipal trash collector, says these projects are just two of the reasons he's an avid Chávez supporter. Though he admits that rampant crime and unemployment have only gotten worse during the president's five and a half years in government, he feels he's finally getting a fair shake after years of being ignored by successive governments.

"I can buy my groceries here for about half what it costs in a supermarket," he says, sitting on a wall outside the bright blue subsidized market built only months ago. The potable water project will soon save him from making four trips a day to carry 20-liter water containers up the steep hill from the nearest municipal tank.

"I'm with Chávez until death," he says, a weary smile coming across his face. "No other president has ever done so much for me."

Communities like El Paraiso form the backbone of support for Chávez, who now seems likely to win Sunday's recall referendum. Neighborhoods like this were forgotten for years by the corrupt two-party system of the pre-Chávez era known as the Fourth Republic, which squandered and pilfered the country's oil boom.

From the fall of a 10-year dictatorship in 1958 until Chávez's first election in 1998, the two parties excluded an entire sector of society from basic opportunities. Government jobs went to people with friends in the government, creating an increasingly mediocre cadre of state officials incapable of preventing the health care and education systems from crumbling and poverty from spiraling out of control.

With his anti-poverty platform dubbed the "Bolivarian Revolution," named after Venezuela's founding father Simón Bolívar, Chávez was elected in 1998 and again in 2000, promising nothing short of a revolution to end social inequality. His message appealed even to middle- and upper-class voters, despite its open invocation of revolutionary heroes like Che Guevara and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, personalities that generally make Venezuela's upper class squirm.

Chávez insists his critics are simply washed-up remnants of the old guard, upset that they're no longer able to pass out favors and government contracts to their friends, now stuck watching the erosion of their once-privileged social status. For him, the story ends here.

For me, it does not.

While the journey up to El Paraiso served to remind me of why so many people back Chávez, the trip down made me remember the abundant problems with his political project.

Though so much anti-Chávez rhetoric is couched in hysterical red-baiting terms, his savvier critics are right to point out that he appears to be walking down the path of his predecessors, something that was made abundantly clear as we headed out of the slums and back toward my apartment in eastern Caracas.

I had visited El Paraiso with a group of municipal employees involved in social development projects around the city. On the way back, the guys' idle chatter quickly turned to politics.

"Chávez is the first president to launch a literacy program," said social worker Luis Zerpa, sitting across from me. "But we have to be careful to make sure it doesn't get infiltrated. Last week we had to fire a teacher because we found out he's not with the revolution.

“Can you believe that? An anti-chavista working in one of our programs?"

"You fired him?" I asked.

"Of course we fired him," he replied, casually. "We can't have counterrevolutionaries in the social projects. Do you know how much damage those people have done to this country?"

If "those people" meant the opposition, he had a point.

Anti-Chávez forces launched a two-month strike in December 2002 that nearly shuttered the oil industry, costing the country $7 billion in lost revenue, not to mention a botched 48-hour coup that left as many as 40 people dead in April 2002.

I still wasn't sure why this meant it was OK to fire people for their political beliefs. Over the previous two months, the government had been accused of firing public employees for having signed petitions requesting a recall referendum on Chávez's rule, as established in the constitution. Numerous acquaintances told horror stories of being denied passports, jobs, and scholarships for having signed referendum petitions. Only a couple of months ago, I heard Health Minister Roger Capella tell the press that signing the referendum was "terrorism and conspiracy" and that any health ministry employee who signed would be summarily fired.

It didn't surprise me that a group of crotchety bureaucrats had overstepped their bounds in trying to defend the president, but I was alarmed to hear it from the mouths of social workers. This type of intolerance smacked of the Venezuela that Chávez promised to change.

Venezuela's state institutions rotted under the Fourth Republic because people were hired on the basis of their party affiliation rather than their qualifications. For years the country suffered from rampant corruption because governments intentionally blurred the lines between state resources and party funds. Though undeniably providing for the poor where the Fourth Republic failed, Chávez has taken heavy-handed Fourth Republic slash-and-burn politics to a new level. He has openly insulted judges that rule against him, and his party recently approved legislation overtly aimed at packing the country's highest court. His primary package of 49 social reform laws were passed by decree rather than negotiated in Congress.

The armed forces and the state oil company now openly profess their allegiance to Chávez, all the while insisting that this in no way makes them politicized.

It's hard to argue that Chávez is not helping the poor, but the evident institutional decay speaks less of a revolution and more of the sins of the father being visited upon the son.

Response by Justin Delacour

Ellsworth writes: I still wasn't sure why this meant it was OK to fire people for their political beliefs.

This seems to be the kind of critique of the Chavez government that needs to be addressed, unlike most of the opposition leadership's critiques.  But having recently spent just a little time in Venezuela, I've come to understand how it is possible that some Chavistas might come to believe that only Chavistas should be employed in the literacy missions and such.

Ellsworth's critique should be put into broader context.  Both sides have fired people for their political beliefs; around the time of the coup, opposition media fired hundreds of journalists who wouldn't go along with their editors' censorship and crude manipulation.  Supposedly the opposition media have black-listed hundreds of journalists.

Venezuela, after all, is a capitalist country, so the economy is still largely in the hands of forces hostile to the government.  These forces have fired many many people for being Chavistas.

In the process, it seems to me that a siege mentality sets in on both sides, whereby one side's excesses are identified as justification for the other sides' excesses.  The idea is that if the business-led opposition uses its economic power over people to keep them in line, the government has little choice but to do the same.

To me, the solution will not come about by simply singling out the government's excesses and failing to put them into context.  The solution will come about by establishing norms across the board --forbidding these types of practices-- to which both sides can hopefully come to agree.

Ellsworth: Over the previous two months, the government had been accused of firing public employees for having signed petitions requesting a recall referendum on Chávez's rule, as established in the constitution.

Yes, and opposition-controlled businesses were also accused (by Chavistas) of using methods to ensure that their employees signed the petition requesting a recall referendum.  Are all the Chavistas' accusations true? I suspect there's a bit of truth to some of them, just as I suspect that there's a bit of truth to some of the opposition's accusations.

Nonetheless, political "accusations" in Venezuela often have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Ellsworth: Numerous acquaintances told horror stories of being denied passports, jobs, and scholarships for having signed referendum petitions.

Yeah, but these sorts of "horror stories" really have to be taken with a grain of salt.  Just imagine, you apply for a job, a passport or a scholarship and you don't get it.  You're pissed off.  Well, in Venezuela, it shouldn't be a surprise to hear some people claiming that they didn't get something that they requested from the state because they signed a petition against the government, but the accusation alone doesn't make it necessarily true.

Ellsworth: It didn't surprise me that a group of crotchety bureaucrats had overstepped their bounds in trying to defend the president, but I was alarmed to hear it from the mouths of social workers. This type of intolerance smacked of the Venezuela that Chávez promised to change.

Well, you can't blame Chavez for what every Chavista social worker says, and you can't really understand these sentiments among Chavista social workers unless you put them into broader context.  We're talking about a highly polarized political environment, in which common rules and norms of political competition have yet to be firmly established.  The goal, in my mind, should be to establish those rules and norms of political competition, including tolerance for both sides in places of employment.

But we won't get very far if we just harp on Chavista excesses without addressing the broader problem of a lack of established rules and norms to which both sides will hopefully come to agree within time.

Ellsworth: Venezuela's state institutions rotted under the Fourth Republic because people were hired on the basis of their party affiliation rather than their qualifications. For years the country suffered from rampant corruption because governments intentionally blurred the lines between state resources and party funds. Though undeniably providing for the poor where the Fourth Republic failed, Chávez has taken heavy-handed Fourth Republic slash-and-burn politics to a new level.

A new level?  I don't think so.  The character of what the Chavez government does today with oil revenues is distinct, in my view.  In my view, it's far better to devote oil resources to social development among the poor than to divvy it up between state oil managers and party-affiliated social organizations and unions whose leaderships were clearly undemocratic and corrupt and whose members weren't necessarily poor (such as in the case of the oil workers).  There's a major distinction to be made, in my view.

The Chavez government is concentrating much more resources on the poor and the historically unorganized.  This was not true of the old parties.

Ellsworth: He has openly insulted judges that rule against him, and his party recently approved legislation overtly aimed at packing the country's highest court. His primary package of 49 social reform laws were passed by decree rather than negotiated in Congress.

Some of this is true, but it's not as if serious conflicts between the executive and the judiciary are unheard of in democracies.  When the U.S. Supreme Court was obstructing the right of workers to organize into unions in the United States, FDR tried to add members to the court as well.  If FDR hadn't threatened the courts in this way, the right to unionize might never have been established.

One shouldn't forget that Venezuela's high court also freed the coup-plotting Generals who appear to be responsible for most of the deaths of April 11, 2002.  If the Supreme Court refuses to enforce the rule of law in a case as basic as that, you've got problems in the judiciary.  This is not to say that I support packing the courts, but the situation seems to me to be much more complicated than how it's often portrayed by the opposition.

Ellsworth: The armed forces and the state oil company now openly profess their allegiance to Chávez, all the while insisting that this in no way makes them politicized.

First of all, the state oil company should be at least partially accountable to the democratically elected government.  Who else could it be accountable to?  Itself?  Oil is the national patrimony; the only entities that have the legitimate authority to oversee the use of the national patrimony are the congress and President, who are accountable to the electorate.  We can agree that norms and rules should be established whereby oil revenue not be used as a blatant partisan tool and a means of electoral bribery, but if a democratically elected government doesn't have at least some authority over how the national patrimony is to be utilized in the interest of the nation, then there is no democratic accountability.

As for the military, some context is in order.  Imagine yourself in power, as a democratically elected government, attempting to fullfill your popular mandate and to embark upon some promised social reforms.  A business-led coterie, which feels threatened by your proposed social reforms, stops at nothing to oust you, and, in fact, lobbies for a military overthrow of you.

And then the coup—backed by this business-led coterie and media tycoons—actually happens, with the support of a bunch of fat-cat generals, some of whom were actually paid off by the opposition.  Well, gee, what do you think you're gonna do after this coup fails?  I'll tell you what I would do.  I, as the democratically elected leader of the country, would purge the military of any elements that might try to embark on another disastrous, bloody venture like that, which almost culminated in a real dictatorship, including the dissolution of the democratically elected congress and democratically ratified constitution.  So yeah, you better believe that the military is gonna become politicized after leading forces in the opposition pull a nasty stunt like that.  So if you really want to understand the politicization of the Venezuela's military, you might want to start by figuring out when and why the purge of the military's anti-Chavista elements began.

The bottom line is that one can't really understand partisanship within Venezuelan institutions viewing them through a first world lens, nor can one really understand these phenomena by only focusing on one side.  The problems are much broader and the solutions will only come about with the establishment and respect of common rules and norms by both sides.