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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

Venezuela: Divisions harden after Chávez victory

Caracas, Venezuela

Oscar Rodríguez had left his new part-time home of West Palm Beach, Fla., and was on an airplane headed for his homeland, Venezuela, with an urgent mission: to vote President Hugo Chávez out of office in a recall referendum.

The owner of a chain of furniture stores in Venezuela, Rodríguez believed the leftist firebrand Chávez was destroying the country. In the last two years, Rodríguez shut down 20 of his 50 stores, and then moved his wife and two daughters to Florida because he feared for their safety. Now he commutes between the two countries every week.

“I can’t sleep at night because it’s a do-or-die situation,” said Rodríguez, 39, a self-described member of the Venezuelan oligarchy Chávez loves to lambaste. “What he wants for Venezuela is another Cuba.”

The next day, a line of men and women were standing on Avenida Urdaneta in Caracas a block away from the Miraflores presidential palace. They were waiting to buy chickens sold by Chávez’s government at cut-rate prices. Workers were passing the bags of poultry down from the back of a truck to a crowd that adores Chávez as much as Rodríguez despises him.

“In the entire history of Venezuela the best thing that has happened is this government,” said Gregoria Vina, 43, a lawyer who lives in the working-class neighborhood of La Pastora. “Before I used to buy one chicken. Now I buy three.”

Venezuela is the most polarized nation in Latin America today, split between those who view Chávez as a dangerous demagogue who wants to impose a Fidel Castro-style communist regime and those who see him as a hero to the poor masses who is carrying out the most radical social transformation in Latin America since at least the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in the early 1980s.

The Aug. 15 recall referendum, billed by some as the first in the world against a democratically elected president, was supposed to provide a democratic solution to a standoff that has included a failed coup attempt, an illegal two-month shutdown of the country’s massive oil industry and a series of huge street protests.

Chávez won the vote in a landslide and amid a record turnout, with some lines stretching a mile long and people waiting up to 11 hours to cast their ballots. But the referendum has not resolved the country’s tensions and in ways left it worse off and more polarized, according to observers.

Even though Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center along with the Organization of American States certified the vote as free and fair, the opposition leadership is alleging fraud and claiming Chávez stole his victory -- despite winning by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, or by 1.7 million votes out of 9.5 million cast. Even the Bush administration, which is hostile to Chávez, acknowledged he won fairly.

Belief in fraud widespread

Yet the conviction that Chávez stole the election is widespread among Venezuela’s small middle and upper classes. “What he did is a fraud,” said Luisa Victoria Arana, 65, a housewife in Caracas’ middle-class Las Colinas de Bello Monte neighborhood. Carter “is a bandit. We don’t want anything to do with Carter.”

Some analysts contend a type of “collective neurosis” or “hysteria” has overtaken large segments of the opposition who refuse to recognize they lost -- and lost big. “They can’t see the reality,” said Margarita López Maya, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela. “There is a mental block. … It’s almost a pathology.”

To the outside world, the refusal of the opposition leadership to acknowledge the results is creating the perception that “they are a bunch of crazy people,” said Jesuit priest Arturo Peraza, a human rights lawyer and a Chávez critic. He compared them to an 8-year-old child who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. “All the credibility they had they’ve thrown away. It’s an act of suicide.”

The Venezuelan opposition’s conviction that Chávez stole the election was fueled in part by exit polls conducted by a U.S. firm in conjunction with Sumate (Join Up), a Venezuelan group that helped lead the drive for the recall referendum. Sumate is the recipient of a $53,400 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. Congress-funded entity that has come under fire from Chávez for pumping $1 million a year into opposition groups.

The exit poll, conducted by Sumate volunteers, showed Chávez losing by 18 percent, when in reality the exact opposite was true. Word of the poll spread quickly by cell phone during the afternoon. Then, four hours before polls finally closed around midnight, New York-based Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates sent out a news release by fax and e-mail declaring, “Exit poll results show major defeat for Chávez.” Venezuelan authorities had prohibited the release of any exit poll results before official results were announced.

Sumate “deliberately distributed this erroneous exit poll data in order to build up, not only the expectation of victory, but also to influence the people still standing in line,” Carter said later. Sumate and Penn Associates insist their poll was accurate, and that the Chávez government committed massive fraud.

Anti-Chávez television

Beyond that, throughout the day Venezuela’s rabidly anti-Chávez television stations showed long lines of people voting in affluent anti-Chávez districts, but none of the long lines in Caracas’s vast slums. Teodoro Petkoff, a former ’60s guerrilla leader and a prominent Chávez critic, says he called the owner of one station to urge him to send camera crews to the slums in the interest of fair and balanced coverage. Petkoff said the owner refused.

It all led to shock and disbelief when electoral authorities announced on national television at 4 a.m. on Aug. 16 that Chávez had won in a landslide. In less than an hour, opposition leaders appeared on television themselves, declaring the vote a fraud.

The opposition’s stance has hardened divisions in the country and created a scenario where extremist right-wing sectors might use the vote as an excuse to resort to violence, Peraza said. The fraud allegations “are an invitation to radical groups to become more empowered,” he said. “That scares me.”

Peraza also was worried before the vote that if Chávez lost, some of his extremist supporters would react violently.

Peraza’s worst nightmare is Chávez’s assassination, setting off a social uprising similar to “El Bogotazo” in Colombia in 1948 when popular Liberal party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated and three days of bloody riots broke out. A brutal civil war ensued and still rages today.

Chávez’s victory in the referendum was spurred largely by a series of “missions” he has launched in the last year or so to carry out his vision of a radical redistribution of Venezuela’s oil income from a wealthy ruling elite he accuses of pillaging the country to the masses of slum dwellers and peasants that experts estimate account for up to 80 percent of the population.

The programs range from a literacy project called Mission Robinson that has taught 1.2 million people to read and write, to subsidized supermarkets that sell beans, flour and rice at cheap prices. One of the most popular programs, Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood), has dispatched 13,500 Cuban doctors, dentists and optometrists to slums where they live and provide free 24-hour medical attention in blighted areas where such a concept is astonishing to most residents.

This year alone Chávez is pumping at least $1.7 billion in revenue from skyrocketing oil prices into health and education programs. Critics say he bought votes for the referendum. Supporters say it is simply pork-barrel politics U.S.-style, and the first time a Venezuelan president has paid serious attention to the poor masses.

Leftist vindication

His backers see Chávez’s victory as vindication of a movement that is rising across Latin America as a backlash to free-market, “neo-liberal” economic programs endorsed by the United States and also known as the “Washington Consensus.” Leftists have won the presidencies of Brazil with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and of Argentina with Nestor Kircher. Indigenous leader Evo Morales nearly won the presidency in Bolivia in 2002.

Yet to his detractors, Chávez is nothing more than a messianic demagogue in the tradition of Argentine caudillo or strongman Juan Perón, offering short-term gratification to the poor masses through programs that are poorly run and will collapse when the oil money runs out. Peraza and fellow Jesuit Jose Virtuoso believe Chávez has failed to attack the major systemic problems plaguing Venezuela such as a corrupt judicial system, one of the most bloated government bureaucracies in Latin America, and rising crime and poverty rates.

An often-cited study by the Jesuit-run Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas says poverty and critical poverty have leaped by nearly 20 percent each, to 74 percent and 40 percent of the population, during Chávez’s five years in power. Economist Robert Bottome says the bolivar has lost 71 percent of its value since 1999, while accumulated inflation is 187 percent. Former Caracas police chief Ivan Simonovis states that Caracas suffered 25,000 homicides in the last five years.

“The government of Chávez has been a bad government,” said Virtuoso, a political scientist at the Jesuit-run think tank Centro Gumilla.

Chávez’s defects go beyond bad government, though, according to some critics who contend he is authoritarian or even imposing a communist dictatorship in Venezuela modeled after his friend Fidel Castro. They say Chávez is packing the Supreme Court with allies, intimidating the news media and seizing control of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, one of the top four suppliers of oil to the United States. “Of course he’s a communist,” said Rodríguez, the businessman who now lives part-time in West Palm Beach.

But to Chávez’s supporters, the accusations are driven by one basic fact: The poor have taken power in Venezuela for the first time in the country’s history, and the moneyed classes who live in gated mansions and travel to Miami for weekend shopping excursions don’t like it.

“For the affluent sectors of the country the problem is not that there is poverty,” said Edgardo Lander, a Harvard-educated political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela. “The problem is that the poor are organizing and mobilizing. And that signifies a threat of the ‘dangerous classes.’ The dangerous classes are dangerous if they mobilize, if they act, if they demand.”

Lander likens the situation to a high-society party of “the white people, the refined people, the people who know how to speak well, who know how to hold the crystal cups to drink wine. Suddenly, into the party barge some people who don’t have manners, who are poorly dressed, who haven’t taken a bath and smell bad. They grab the food with their hands. They create the sensation they are taking over the country.”

Chávez backers contend that if the economy is not doing well, it’s because the opposition has destabilized the country by launching the failed 2002 coup against Chávez, the illegal two-month oil strike in December 2002 at a cost of $10 billion, and the constant street protests. Now that the opposition has resorted to democratic means to try to oust Chávez, the economy is rebounding and is expected to lead Latin America this year with 12 percent growth.

Even if the Catholic University figures are accurate, Chávez supporters assert that the missions have offset much of the economic downturn. The United Nations says life expectancy has increased under Chávez from 72.8 years to 73.7 years; infant mortality has dropped slightly and literacy has risen from 90.9 percent to 92.9 percent.

Many people in the slums told NCR that they don’t feel their lives are worse under Chávez, and actually are much better. “He’s the only president who has fought for the poor,” said Rosa Gonzales, 43, who lives in a tin shack in one of the poorest barrios in Caracas, Nueva Tacagua. Many of her neighbors said they were going to vote for the first time in their lives in the referendum.

Even critics who question the effectiveness of his programs acknowledge his brilliance at connecting with the poor masses. “The man speaks the language of the poor,” said Peraza. “The man touches the souls of the poor.”

Like all of Venezuela, the Jesuits themselves are divided over Chávez, who grew up in a mud hut and is dark-skinned like most poor Venezuelans, in contrast to the light-skinned elite. Fr. Miguel Matos, a prominent leader of Venezuela’s popular movement in the barrios, says he believes the Chávez project, while not perfect, overall is positive.

He says that in contrast to recent Venezuelan presidents who were corrupt, alcoholic or womanizers, Chávez is a role model of a teetotaling, personally honest, hard-working leader (he sleeps as little as three or four hours a night and works seven days a week). Matos adds that given Venezuela’s culture of corruption and other national idiosyncrasies such as putting recreation first and work second, any reform project will be difficult to wage and flawed from the beginning.

Opponents march freely

To Chávez supporters, one of the most searing and widely reported accusations about his project -- that he is installing a communist dictatorship -- is absurd. Opponents freely march by the hundreds of thousands in the streets. Critics openly call for coups on television, including some generals who declared themselves in open rebellion against Chávez during a months-long occupation of the Plaza Altamira in upscale Altamira. None of them or the leaders of the 2002 coup or the leaders of the oil strike went to jail.

“What would happen in the United States if a group of active generals in the army organized a coup against the president of the republic?” asked Lander. “Would they have been let free as if nothing happened?”

“Can you imagine that in the United States a group of active generals install themselves in a plaza and declare themselves in disobedience to the president of the United States and this goes on for months and nothing happens?”

Even some of Chávez’s fiercest critics who are concerned about his autocratic tendencies concede that allegations that he is installing a Cuba-type dictatorship are far-fetched. “This is not a dictatorship,” said Petkoff, the former guerrilla leader. “It’s a country with a president who is authoritarian, personalist, a caudillo, but in the end a democratic country.”

Yet Petkoff contends Chávez has made a major strategic blunder by flaunting his friendship with Castro, inciting mass panic in the moneyed classes that he plans to install a communist dictatorship even though he has no plans -- or capacity -- to do so, since the country would never accept it. The dictatorship allegation is a prominent theme in both Venezuelan and international news accounts of Chávez. “It’s an irony that he has created all these fears with threats he hasn’t carried out,” Petkoff said.

He added that Chávez also has frightened and alienated the wealthy with his constant attacks, calling them “squalid ones” and a “rancid oligarchy.”

Petkoff doesn’t know if Chávez can reverse his sour relations with the elites and achieve a peaceful coexistence. He and other analysts believe Chávez should reach out to them after his victory and seek some form of dialogue and reconciliation, including with sectors such as the business community that are showing signs of accepting his triumph as valid. They say Chávez must realize that 40 percent of the population opposes him and his project, take them into account, tone down the anti-oligarch rhetoric, drop his autocratic tendencies and do a better job of listening to people who disagree with him.

Need to admit they lost

For its part, the opposition needs to recognize the reality that they lost overwhelmingly in the referendum, and that they are not the majority in the country. Many analysts believe the opposition also must renounce unconstitutional actions, commit itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, drop its wild accusations of a communist dictatorship, find new leadership and realize the poor majority can no longer be ignored.

National healing in Venezuela must include a commitment by the fiercely anti-Chávez and elite-controlled media -- which many say have turned into political parties -- to return to ethical journalism and present both sides of the Chávez story, analysts contend. “The media has created an irrational hatred” of Chávez with its 24-hours-a-day bombardment of harsh, mocking and often false attacks, said Matos.

Critics such as Lander and Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington believe the international media has followed suit, sending around the world a distorted image of Chávez as a dictator and a monster and ignoring or downplaying the story of why he enjoys widespread support. Before the referendum most of the media reported that the vote was too close to call, even though many independent observers, pollsters and even Wall Street analysts were predicting a Chávez win.

The international media “is presenting day after day grotesque distortions of what is happening in Venezuela,” Lander said.

What seems clear in the wake of Chávez’s stunning victory is that there will be no fundamental retreat in his “Bolivarian Revolution.” As he stood on the second-floor balcony of Miraflores Palace as dawn neared Aug. 16, he addressed a throng of cheering supporters after his triumph -- his eighth at the polls since 1998 and one of his most important. “Venezuela has changed forever. There is no turning back,” Chávez said. “The country will never return to that false democracy of the past where elites ruled.”

Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday and a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Venezuela.

Chávez's 'missions' key to his popularity

Dilia Mari Davila grew up in rural Venezuela, and never went to school or learned to read and write. At age 8 she started working as a live-in maid.

But now, at 34, Davila has become literate. She is among at 1.2 million Venezuelans who have taken part in one of President Hugo Chávez’s premiere programs to help the poor, Mission Robinson.

“A lot of time I couldn’t help my son [with his school work] because I didn’t know how,” said Davila, who lives in La Vega, a Caracas shantytown. “He had to learn almost alone.”

Now Davila can not only read and write, but she is learning how to divide and multiply. She has reached fourth-grade level since joining the program a year ago, and even dreams of attending a university some day.

Davila is among the 5.6 million Venezuelans who swept Chávez to an extraordinary victory Aug. 15 in a recall referendum organized by opponents who hoped to end his presidency. The story of her success in the classroom and of her barrio’s emergence as a showcase of Chávez’s efforts to transform Venezuela explains why he was able to beat back the recall.

She lives in the Sector A, La Casita (The Little House) section of La Vega, which has attracted visitors and journalists from around the world, although no reporters from the elite-controlled anti-Chávez Venezuelan media, said community leader Maria Alejandra Mucura. An NCR reporter was the first journalist from the United States to visit, she added.

Besides Mission Robinson, the barrio also is home to a Mission Ribas program, which offers high school diplomas to adults who dropped out of school. Beyond that, Mission Sucre permits impoverished students to continue to university studies.

A new red-brick hectagonal building on the barrio’s main street is home to Mission Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood), where a Cuban doctor lives and offers 24-hour-a-day free medical care. A couple blocks away is a “Casa Alimentaria” (Nutrition House), a local home where volunteers cook nutritious hot lunches every day for about 150 people in extreme poverty. The government provides the food, pots and dishes. Up a hill, residents can buy discounted food at one of the thousands of government-subsidized supermarkets called Mission Mercal now operating around the country.

Residents also have organized a committee to oversee the community’s participation in Chávez’s urban land reform, under which people will receive titles to their homes for the first time. Many of Venezuela’s slums started as “invaded” areas years ago where people simply moved in and built houses of cardboard at first. Property titles will allow homeowners to take out bank loans and receive other benefits.

Critics dismiss the programs as “populism,” contending they will collapse when prices for Venezuela’s main export, oil, drop. They say they don’t get to the root of Venezuela’s problems, are poorly planned and are dictated by Chávez from his perch at Miraflores presidential palace.

But many people in the slums say they love the programs, and that they have sparked a level of organizing they’ve never seen. Most of the educational programs were imported from Cuba, which has a higher literacy rate than the United States.

“We opened the door to the process [initiated by Chávez]. We feel identified with it,” said Mucura, 34, who also runs a small, government-subsidized food store out of her home. She added: “I think this is the most democratic country that there can be in the world.”

Santa Martínez, 46, runs the Alimentary House, teaches in Mission Robinson and studies in Mission Ribas for her high school diploma. She says she left school 20 years ago in the 9th grade, and now can’t wait to get to class every day. “It’s so exciting,” she said.

La Vega isn’t the only shantytown undergoing a transformation. In the sprawling 23 de Enero slum, activist Juan Contreras said the community library now has a dozen computers that offer free Internet service to residents. Running water that used to arrive every four or five days now comes every day. And residents in huge Soviet-style buildings also have direct gas connections to their apartments. Before they had to go out and buy small tanks.

Contreras laughed at suggestions that Chávez has destroyed Venezuela. “If the country is so bad and people are dying of hunger with parasites in their stomachs, why did they go out and wait on line to vote for Chávez?” he asked.

-- Bart Jones

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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