Chávez’s Staying Power

Rosita Toro is a thirty-six-year-old teacher with a ponytail and big brown eyes. She arrived at her polling place in Caracas at 2:45 a.m. on August 15. I spoke to her about four hours later while she was still waiting in a line that stretched for half a mile. "I think this is a historic process," she told me. And it was.

Rosita Toro is a thirty-six-year-old teacher with a ponytail and big brown eyes. She arrived at her polling place in Caracas at 2:45 a.m. on August 15. I spoke to her about four hours later while she was still waiting in a line that stretched for half a mile. “I think this is a historic process,” she told me. And it was.

Venezuelans came out to vote in record numbers, with 75 percent of the registered voters participating in the recall referendum that determined the fate of President Hugo Chávez. The charismatic, left-leaning Chávez and his “Bolivarian revolution” won handily, capturing 59 percent of the vote. Like Toro, many people had gotten up hours before dawn to make sure their votes would count. Some waited in line for eight or nine hours in the blazing Caracas sun.

“We are defending our right to democracy,” said Toro.

The Reverend José Gregorio Martínez is the head of a pro-Chávez group in the same section of Caracas where Toro is from. “For many years, we were marginalized from the political process,” he told me inside the polling place. “We have to abandon this idea that some will be well-off and others not. Our resources are for all of humanity, not just for businessmen.”

But Chávez has plenty of critics. They say the president bought off the poor with his social programs funded largely by earnings from the state oil company. Chávez’s distribution of oil wealth to the poor–estimated to be about 70 percent of the population–is unique in the country’s history. The oil industry was nationalized in the early 1970s, but existed as a virtual cookie jar for the upper classes until Chávez came to power.

“The one who gives us [social programs] can take them away, too,” said Belkis, a manicurist who sets up her table every weekday near the downtown’s central plaza, Plaza Bolívar. “On the one hand, his programs have helped a lot of people, but on the other hand, they’ve ruined the country, too. People work less. You have to work hard to succeed.”

The Bush Administration has been openly hostile to Chávez, who routinely denounces U.S. unilateralism and praises Fidel Castro. But in the months preceding the August 15 vote, Bush did Chávez a favor. The Iraq War roiled the world oil market, sending prices up dramatically. Since Venezuela is the fifth largest exporter of oil, Chávez was able to lavish more funds for social investment, which may have helped him expand his margin of victory.

César Pérez Vivas is the secretary general of the Christian Democratic Party, one of the two major political parties that governed the country for nearly forty years. “In Venezuela, judicial power is wielded like a club, like a political horsewhip,” Pérez told me a few days after the vote. The judiciary, rarely an independent branch of government in Venezuela or in Latin America in general, could soon have a significantly larger supreme court, appointed by the pro-Chávez legislature. Critics say that Chávez is trying to stack the judiciary, and he has made his presence felt throughout the government.

“A military authoritarian–that’s my definition of Chávez,” added Pérez. As a lieutenant colonel, Chávez first tried to come to power through an unsuccessful 1992 coup. He was imprisoned and later released. As president, Chávez talks about a “civic-military” alliance. But given that Chávez has won three elections with more than 50 percent of the vote each time, it seems a stretch to classify him as a military dictator.

Michael Santiago, an elderly man who was born in the United States and returned to Venezuela in the 1950s, finds Chávez infuriating. “He hasn’t done anything in five years. Nothing at all,” Santiago told me on election day outside of the El Llanito neighborhood polling center. “They’re communist, and they came in hungry. Now they are doing everything possible to fleece the country and leave it in ruins.” And Chávez’s close relationship with Fidel Castro disgusts Santiago. “Fidel is his girlfriend,” he said. “I don’t know which one is the boyfriend, OK?”

The August referendum marked the opposition’s third attempt to oust Chávez. The first was a failed coup in April 2002. With help from members of the armed forces, Pedro Carmona, head of the national business association, dissolved the legislature and the supreme court and declared himself president. The U.S. government quickly recognized the Carmona government. Meanwhile, people took to the streets to protest the coup, and members of the armed forces loyal to Chávez freed him. Carmona’s presidency lasted only forty-eight hours.

The second attempt was a national strike that began in December 2002. The two-month strike was disastrous for the country’s economy–it still hasn’t completely recovered–but Chávez did not leave office. In fact, Chávez consolidated his power by firing the striking oil workers and appointing his associates. Ali Rodríguez, a former guerrilla leader of the 1960s, now heads the state oil company.

On its third try to oust Chávez from power, the opposition took the legal, electoral route. The 1999 Venezuelan constitution, which Chávez helped push through, contained a clause allowing for the populace to recall elected officials, including the president.The opposition collected millions of signatures. The National Electoral Council, with a three-to-two pro-Chávez majority, tried to disqualify many of them, but there were still enough to trigger a vote.

The opposition leaders and some of the foreign press were caught off guard by Chávez’s victory, but they shouldn’t have been. “It’s not a surprise,” said Alfonso Tovar of the Simón Bolívar Cultural Foundation. It was 10:30 p.m., and I was sitting with a dozen other people in a meeting room at the foundation, which is located in the “January 23” neighborhood of Caracas. We were glued to the TV, waiting for the referendum results. A few of us smoked cigarettes, depositing the ash in an empty soda bottle.

The January 23 neighborhood takes its name from the date of the overthrow of the last military dictator, Marco Pérez Jiménez, on January 23, 1958. Huge fourteen-story apartment buildings ring this area that sits on the western hills of the capital. The neighborhood is a chavista stronghold, and you can see evidence of the social programs that “el comandante,” as many of his supporters call Chávez, has funded. Although polls remained open until midnight due to the unprecedented number of voters, many people, including Tovar, decided that Chávez had won. Chavista caravans began circulating in this public housing neighborhood. Chavistas, dressed in red T-shirts and hats, decked out their cars in red, too.

I went outside with a few others to check out the festivities. We were high on a hill and could hear music floating up from the streets below. People brought out bottles of rum and whiskey and began passing them around. In this neighborhood, you could still buy beer despite the “dry law” the government declared for the day. Firecrackers boomed in the sky and celebratory bullets did, too. We decided to move away from the hill’s ledge in order to not get shot accidentally. We watched car after car cruise by on a victory lap. At midnight, we ate boxed dinners of fried chicken and arepas, a kind of cornmeal griddlecake.

At midnight, a Venezuelan community radio journalist and I started to make our way back to the downtown area by scooter. We passed by Miraflores, the presidential palace. Already the crowd was big and rowdy, even though official preliminary results would not be released for hours. The crowd would stay all night and wait for el presidente to speak. People partied in many of the poor neighborhoods surrounding the downtown. But in the well-off ones, the streets were empty.

In the days after the vote, the opposition cried fraud. But it was unable to produce convincing evidence. Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center, along with César Gaviria, former president of Colombia and current president of the Organization of American States, said the vote was free and fair. “We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral system or the accuracy of the referendum results,” Carter said at a press conference on August 17. “There is no evidence of fraud, and any allegations of fraud are completely unwarranted.”

But the election was not without incident. A few days before the 15th, in the downtown Plaza Bolívar, the police used tear gas to break up a confrontation. Opposition activists tried to set up an information booth in this chavista area, and fighting between the two groups ensued. After the tear gas evaporated, the opposition was left without a booth and was able only to hand out leaflets. At the other end of the plaza, chavista activists walked around shouting, “We won! We won!”

I also attended an opposition demonstration in Caracas’s Plaza Altamira neighborhood the day after Chávez’s victory. The demonstrators held signs declaring electoral fraud. While I interviewed people, a group of Chávez supporters neared the intersection, apparently out on a victory lap around the city. I jumped up on a park bench to get a better look. The two groups exchanged heated words and then started throwing rocks at each other. Shots rang out, and I jumped off the bench. I took cover a few yards away behind another small concrete bench. A young man hid with me. A bullet had hit him in the leg and his blood streamed down the sidewalk. One woman died of a gunshot wound. Eight others were injured.

The crowd dispersed at the sounds of the gunshots but quickly regrouped after the gunmen fled. A few women wailed. But the crowd was angry and vindictive. The crowd took revenge on a man wearing a red shirt who came up from the subway station, located in the plaza. They nearly tore the red shirt off of him. The police had to escort the man down the street, with the crowd trailing behind.

The next day, large photographs of the alleged chavista gunmen appeared on the front pages of the newspapers. According to the opposition, the shooting was the work of pro-government forces. Pérez of the Christian Democrats said this was proof of government’s collusion with armed militias. In a press conference that night, Chávez denied the allegation. He suggested that the attackers were perhaps in cahoots with the anti-Chávez mainstream press.

Chávez does not mince words when describing his critics, calling them el diablo, the devil. At a huge rally a week before the referendum, he warned his followers to avoid being triumphant before the vote. “El diablo has an owner from the north that is capable of anything,” Chávez said, referring to the U.S. government’s support of the opposition.

Chávez told the crowd this battle is not a personal one. “These six letters–C, H, Á, V, E, Z–is not me. I am a human being like any one of you,” he said. ” ‘Chávez no se va’ [“Chávez will not go,” his campaign’s slogan] is a concept. It’s not a man.”

This is a battle between two philosophies about life, he said. “Here in Venezuela we are confronting a savage conception of privilege that dominates the world,” he proclaimed. “This is the same idea that Christ fought against when he confronted Roman imperialism,” he said.

Chávez invoked the “authentic Christ, the liberator of the people.” On the August 15 ballot, if you wanted Chávez to stay in power, you had to vote no. The no of the campaign is the “no of Cristo against imperialism,” said Chávez. “It’s the no of Christ against leaving behind the poor. This is an ancient no. And today it is reborn by this flood of people.”

Hugo Chávez knows how to stay in power. All over Caracas there is graffiti that says “Chávez hasta 2021,” which means “Chávez until 2021.”