Just two days before George Bush’s second electoral victory, someone Bush and his administration apparently cannot stand, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, celebrated his ninth consecutive electoral victory in six years. The vote was for state governors and city mayors and Chavez’s allies swept the vote, winning 20 out of the 22 contested state capitals and 270 of the 337 city halls. Altogether, pro-Chavez factions won the same percentage of the vote, about 60%, in these elections as Chavez himself did two and a half months earlier, when he defeated a recall referendum.
In contrast to Bush, Chavez’s ninth electoral victory (including various referenda on the new constitution) has once again confirmed that he does indeed have a mandate to remake Venezuelan society, to continue his “Bolivarian Revolution”—which is named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. More than that, Chavez can now accelerate the implementation of his program, as his allies now control nearly all levels and branches of government. The main domestic obstacles that remain to his program, now that the political opposition has been decisively crushed for the time being, are within the government itself, such as saboteurs, corruption, inefficiency, and cronyism. It is well known, for example, that much of the government bureaucracy is staffed with oppositional civil servants who, if not actively prevent the implementation of programs, often do much to slow them down. To complicate matters further, many public servants who actively support the government do not have adequate training and experience, which also contributes to inefficiency.
Chavez is aware that he must accelerate the pace of reform, now that he has reached the height of his political power. The 75% of the population that lives in poverty and that has overwhelmingly supported him are clamoring for more and faster government action. They support Chavez because they believe that much has been done and because they hope that much more will be done soon. Realizing that the above mentioned internal obstacles to his political program represent a significant problem in responding to the hopes of his supporters, Chavez has promised to crack down on corruption, inefficiency, and bureaucratism within his government.
Shortly after the regional elections, Chavez gathered the entire leadership of his movement in an intense strategy session and outlined points for “deepening the revolution.” However, the concrete plan for how the government intends to fight inefficiency and corruption still has to be presented. The government’s other objectives, though, such as increasing social justice in Venezuela, implementing a non-neo-liberal economic development path, and working towards Latin American unification, are receiving more attention, especially now that oil revenues are at their highest point of the past 20 years (even if, due to population increases and higher production costs, the state’s per-capita oil income is still only a quarter of what it was in the late 1970’s).
These plans, though, continue to unfold against the backdrop of strong criticism from the media, some human rights groups, and the U.S. government. These opponents say that Chavez is preparing to turn Venezuela into a dictatorship via measures that Chavez and his allies say are designed to outlaw many forms of intervention and sabotage that have been used in the past to prevent the government’s proper functioning. Two of the more frequently mentioned examples of the supposedly repressive new measures are the case against the U.S.-funded opposition organization Súmate and a new law to regulate broadcasters.
Súmate is one of the main organizations behind the August 15 recall referendum against President Chavez. They organized the logistics of collecting the 2.4 million required signatures, audited the voter registry for this purpose, and handled many of the legal issues that arose around the recall referendum. According to recently obtained documents, Súmate received $54,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and another $85,000 from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for this work. According to Súmate and its U.S. government funders, this was supposed to be non-partisan democracy-building work. To anyone in Venezuela, though, it is obvious that Súmate is part of the opposition that is dedicated to removing Chávez from office.
On the surface of it, it is blatantly wrong for a foreign government to fund efforts to have the president of another country recalled from office. The Attorney General’s office is thus accusing Súmate not only of organizing a political campaign with foreign financial support, but also of setting up a parallel institution to that of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is illegal according to Venezuelan law. For those opposed to the Chávez government, these accusations are a blatant attempt to harass legitimate opposition activity. For Chavistas, though, it is a legitimate effort to prevent foreign interference in Venezuelan affairs.
The other example of supposedly repressive measures is the law to regulate broadcasters: the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. This law introduces many provisions that exist in most countries in the world, regulating such things as the scheduling of sex and violence on television—so as to protect children—, the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco advertisements, and stipulations for the proportion of domestically and independently produced content—so as to maintain diversity and Venezuelan culture. Many of these provisions have been relatively uncontroversial for most people. What the opposition objects to most is the setting up of media boards to enforce the regulations because they fear that the boards would be dominated by Chavez supporters. That is, according to the opposition, any minor infraction could be used to politically sanction the broadcast media, which are essentially part of the opposition and do not respect the traditional norms of journalistic objectivity or even factual accuracy in their efforts to get rid of the government.
For pro-Chávez lawmakers, however, the law fills an important gap in Venezuelan media law. According to them, there are sufficient checks and balances to ensure that the law is not applied as a political instrument to censor the opposition. As evidence for Chavista restraint, a pro-Chavez former Supreme Court judge, Carlos Escarrá, recently pointed out that there is a presidential decree still on the books, written by President Jaime Lusinchi (1984-1989), that is much more restrictive than the new media regulation law. In theory, Chavez could have applied this decree for political purposes on numerous occasions (as did Lusinchi when he temporarily closed two TV channels), but has not done so, even though the media has violated this decree repeatedly, often going so far as to distort and falsify the news, as happened during the April 2002 coup attempt.
While the Chavez government’s domestic and international opposition loves to present these supposedly authoritarian tendencies of the government in the most one-sided manner possible, it generally completely leaves out the more positive developments in Venezuela under Chávez. Most important of these are the so-called “missions,” which are designed to provide literacy programs to Venezuela’s illiterate, free community health care, especially in the remotest and poorest neighborhoods, large-scale financial aid for the poor to attend a university, subsidized supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, and employment for graduates from the educational missions. Also very important in the Chávez government’s efforts to institute greater social justice are the rural land reform program, which has redistributed land to over 100,000 families, and the urban land reform program, which is providing barrio inhabitants with titles to their self-built homes and terrain.
The opposition looks down upon these programs, arguing that they constitute nothing more than “populism,” “vote-buying,” and “patronage.” Whatever the government’s motivation, the fact is that these programs represent a significant investment in the country’s human capital. That is, while previous administrations sunk the country’s oil income into expensive investments outside of the country, such as the purchase of refineries and gas station chains (e.g., Citgo in the U.S. and Veba Öl in Germany), now the government is investing the oil income directly in the Venezuelan people, by improving their health and education and by reversing some of the country’s grossly unequal distribution of wealth. It should thus come as no surprise that in almost every one of the nine elections since Chávez was first elected in 1998, he and his supporters have won about 60% of the vote.
Of course, the Chavez government still has to confront the U.S. government’s low intensity intervention, perhaps even more than before, given the probable triumphalism of the recently reelected Bush administration. While both sides have said that they hope that relations will improve, it is likely that Bush will continue to covertly support Chavez’s opposition, while at the same time take a more pragmatic approach of overtly engaging the country that is one of the U.S.’s largest oil suppliers with the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. This strategy has recently become public, as documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (available at www.venezuelafoia.info) prove that the U.S. government, via the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, has been funding Venezuelan opposition organizations to the tune of $5 million per year. Also, the recent discovery of CIA documents that show that the CIA knew of the planning for the April 2002 coup, even while the Bush administration pretended that it was no coup, demonstrate a clear pattern of U.S. intervention in Venezuelan affairs.
The U.S. government’s aid to the opposition is more important than the cash implies, and that is perhaps why the Bush administration has been loathe to give it up, despite the obvious illegitimacy of such efforts and the fact that they have backfired by helping Chavez to paint his opposition as agents of a foreign government. While the opposition has plenty of money (including billionaire Venezuelans like Cisneros) to finance its own activities, U.S. agencies are able to draw on decades of experience in destabilizing, discrediting, and even overthrowing various governments. This is a knowledge base that exists probably nowhere else in the world, and its importance in situations like Venezuela’s should not be underestimated.Meanwhile, despite this low-intensity intervention, the Chavez government is focusing on moving beyond the reform of Venezuela’s appalling levels of inequality by transforming the country into a more democratic society. Its first steps in this direction have been the support for the creation of tens of thousands of cooperatives, community organizations, and community media outlets. Now the government must finds ways to institutionalize the gains in democratization, by developing more and better institutional ways in which these organizations can participate in both the polity and the economy. Also, Chavez and his supporters must find better ways to institutionalize the Bolivarian movement so that it is less dependent on Chavez. In this new phase of the Bolivarian project there appears to be an interest in both of these forms of institutionalization—of democratic participation and of the movement—but it is still to early to say whether they will actually be pursued.