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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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The journey helps explain why many frequent travelers to Latin America prefer almost any other national capital to Caracas. The streets are choked with traffic, the air with black exhaust. On one side of the road stand skyscrapers; on the other flow the remains of the Guaire River, a concrete canal filled with runoff and sewage. Only the view of Mount Avila, its bright green peak rising more than 7,000 feet above the sprawl, relieves the dreariness.

On the journey there, Caraballo told me that while he was growing up in the 1980s, his family—all engineers on his father’s side—had fallen from middle class to poor, like hundreds of thousands of other Venezuelan families in that era of slumping oil prices. When we reached the hilltop and outer limit of La Vega, he showed me a neighborhood that was trying to reverse the descent.

Caraballo said that Sector B, as it is known, was safer than in previous years, the police having killed a small gang of crack dealers several weeks before. There were also tangible signs of progress. Residents could shop at a brand-new market, its shelves stacked with sugar, soap, powdered milk and bags of flour, all marked down as much as 50 percent. The red brick medical clinic was also new, as were the ten Dell computers in the air-conditioned wireless Internet center, staffed by two helpful technicians. In one home, half a dozen students, ages 12 to 40, sat at wooden school desks, taking free remedial high-school classes. Some of them received government stipends of $80 a month to attend.

The market’s food came in plastic bags printed with progovernment slogans, the clinic’s doctors were Cuban imports and the remedial lesson I observed was an explanation of rainfall that would be third-grade material in a U.S. classroom—yet they were all splendid gifts in a country where roughly half the population earns less than $2 a day.

Of course, daily life in La Vega bears little semblance to the self-image Venezuela’s elite held dear for most of the past century. Oil wealth has given rise to grand aspirations ever since 1922, when a blowout sprayed “black rain” over the small town of Cabimas. By 1928, Venezuela had become the world’s largest oil exporter, with Venezuelans of all classes acquiring costly Yanqui tastes. The country has long been one of the world’s top five per capita consumers of whiskey and is a major Latin American market for Viagra.

In 1976, the government nationalized its subsoil wealth. High oil prices and stable politics allowed for grand living: a trip to Disney World was a rite of passage even for the children of some parking lot attendants, and Venezuelan shoppers in Miami were known as the Dáme dos (“Give me two!”) crowd. But by 1980, oil prices began to fall, and the hard times that followed revealed the ruling class as graft-hungry and,  worse, managerially inept. In 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez (later impeached for corruption) clumsily imposed an austerity program, which, among other things, increased bus fares. Riots broke out; Pérez called out the army, and more than 200 people were killed in the infamous suppression dubbed “el Caracazo”—Caracas’ “violent blow.”

Chávez, then a midcareer lieutenant who had studied Marxism and idolized Che Guevara, was among the troops called to put down the protests. He was already plotting rebellion by then, but he has cited his outrage at the order to shoot his compatriots as a reason he went ahead, three years later, with the coup attempt that made him a national hero.

Hugo Chávez was one of six children of cash-strapped primary school teachers in western Venezuela, but he dreamed big. “He first wanted to be a big-league [baseball] pitcher, and then to be president,” says Alberto Barrera Tyszka, coauthor of the recent Venezuelan bestseller Hugo Chávez Sin Uniforme (Chávez Without His Uniform). “At 19, he attended Pérez’s presidential inaugural, then wrote in his diary: ‘Watching him pass, I imagined myself walking there with the weight of the country on my own shoulders.’ ”

After his coup attempt, Chávez was so popular that almost every candidate in the 1993 presidential campaign promised to free him from jail; the winner, Rafael Caldera, pardoned him in one of his first official acts. Eventually Chávez joined with leftist politicians and former military colleagues to launch the Fifth Republic Movement, and in December 1998, having never held a political post, he was elected Venezuela’s president with 56 percent of the vote.

He moved quickly: within a year, his new constitution replaced a bicameral Congress with a single-chamber National Assembly and extended the presidential term from four years to six, with the right to immediate reelection. Thus Chávez’s first term officially began with the special election of 2000. Since then, he has used his outsider appeal to transform both the presidency and the government.

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