Venezuela Steers a New Course

As oil profits fund a socialist revolution, President Hugo Chávez picks a fight with his country’s biggest customer the United States

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Lunch was on the patio, overlooking a green valley an hour's drive west of Caracas. The hostess, wearing a small fortune in St. John knits, snapped at one of the uniformed waiters for failing to top off my glass of guava juice. Over dessert, the conversation turned to the squatters who with the encouragement of President Hugo Chávez's leftist government were taking over private lands. Campaigning had begun for next December’s presidential election, and the guests worried that pro-Chávez rallies would, as in years past, end in tear gas and gunfire. “There will certainly be more violence,” murmured one of them, a sleekly coiffed television broadcaster.

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Later, as the family chauffeur ran to get the car to take me back to my hotel, the hostess’s brother-in-law winked at me. “He claims we work him too hard,” he said. “We call him el bobolongo”—the moron.

The driver’s name is Nelson Delgado. He is an agronomist by training. He used to teach, but he took the chauffeur job because he could not find one that paid more. On the way back to Caracas, he confided that his prospects were improving. He had joined one of the land “invasions” that so concern his present employers; he and a few hundred fellow squatters were planning to build homes and start farming on their plot. He had also applied for a government job—one of many now available under Chávez’s “Bolívarian revolution”—evaluating farmers who applied for loans. He figured he wouldn’t be a chauffeur much longer.

When I asked how my hostess and her family might fare in the revolutionary future, Delgado paused a moment before answering: “As long as they cooperate, they’ll be OK.”

venezuela’s meek are beginning to inherit the earth—or at least a share of the oil wealth underground—and it is making them much bolder. No political leader before Chávez has so powerfully embodied their dreams—or given them so much money. Like 80 percent of his 25 million countrymen, the president, a former army paratrooper, comes from the lower classes. Elected in 1998, reelected under a new constitution in 2000 and widely expected to win another six-year term next December, he has spent more than $20 billion over the past three years on social programs to provide food, education and medical care to the neediest.

In the United States, Pat Robertson might like to see Chávez assassinated—as the Christian broadcaster suggested in August—but Chávez’s countrymen are, on the whole, supportive of the president. National polls last May showed that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans approved of his leadership. “Comedians used to make fun of our government officials,” says Felix Caraballo, 28, a shantytown dweller and father of two who studies at a new government-subsidized university. “They’d say, ‘We’re going to build a school, a road, clinics.’ . . . And then they’d say, ‘We’ve thought about it, but we’re not going to do it.’ Today, thanks to Chávismo”—as Chávez’s political program is known—“another world is possible.”

Chávez, 51, is one of the most contradictory caudillos ever to tackle Latin America’s intractable poverty and inequity. He’s a freely elected coup plotter (jailed for rebellion in 1992), a leftist with a fat wallet and a fire-breathing foe of the U.S. government, even though his treasury relies on gas-guzzling gringos. Oil provides roughly half of Venezuela’s government income, and the United States—“the Empire,” to Chávez—buys some 60 percent of its oil exports.

In his first year in office, Chávez won a popular vote for a new constitution, which, among other things, changed his nation’s name to the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela to honor his hero, Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the independence leader from Caracas, the capital. Since then, Chávez’s friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his attempts, à la Bolívar, to unite his neighbors against “imperialists” have provoked hostility from Washington. (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called him a “negative force” in the region.) At home, Chávez has weathered a 2002 coup (he was reinstated after two days of domestic and international protests), a 63-day national strike in 2002-03 and a recall referendum in 2004, which he won with 58 percent support.

Through it all, Venezuelans of all classes have become obsessed with politics, to the point where families have split along political lines. As wealthy conservatives have fled to Miami or hunkered down, expecting the worst, unprecedented hope has come to people like Delgado and Caraballo, who were among a few dozen Venezuelans I met on a recent visit. I arrived with three questions: Is Chávez simply throwing Venezuela’s oil wealth at the poor, as his critics say, or are his plans more far-reaching and sustainable? How democratic is his revolution? And how long can the United States coexist with Chávez-style democracy?

Chávez’s supporters say that to appreciate his vision, you must first look to the hillside shantytowns that ring Caracas. One of them—La Vega, on the city’s western edge—is where Felix Caraballo lives. It takes roughly an hour to get there from downtown—by private taxi and then one of the communal jeeps that dares the steep, rutted ascent, paralleling a sewage ditch lined with avocado and banana trees.

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