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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

He likes to speak directly to his constituents, especially on his Sunday TV show, “Aló, Presidente.” Appearing often in a bright red shirt and jeans, he talks for hours at a time, breaks into song, hugs women, gives lectures on nutrition and visits sites where people are learning to read or are shopping for subsidized groceries. He quotes Jesus and Bolívar, inveighs against capitalism and excoriates the “oligarchs” and the “squalid ones”—the rich and the political opposition. And he rarely misses a chance to taunt the U.S. government. While Chávez has made the most out of Robertson’s call for his assassination—he declared it “an act of terrorism”— he has long suggested that Washington is out to get him. He has notoriously called President Bush a pendejo, using a vulgar term for “jerk,” and he has threatened to cut the United States off from Venezuelan oil. At the United Nations in September, he told a radio interviewer that there was “no doubt whatsoever” the United States “planned and participated in” the 2002 coup and wanted him dead. (The Bush administration waited six days after the coup collapsed before condemning
it but insists it played no part in the coup.)

“He wants to present himself as the great enemy of Bush, and he does it very well,” biographer Barrera told me. “All of us Latin Americans have a few grains of anti-imperialism in our hearts, because the U.S. foreign policy here has been such a disaster”—a reference to U.S. cold war plots against elected leaders and support for right-wing dictators in Guatemala, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere. “So each time he says he’s anti-imperialist and the U.S. reacts, it excites people all over Latin America—and Europe. The U.S. falls into his trap as if 40 years with Castro taught you nothing.”

Yet the Bush administration has understandable reasons for thinking of Chávez as a threat. One is that Bush’s plans for new, hemisphere-wide trade pacts depend on Latin Americans’ goodwill. But Bush is extremely unpopular in the region, while Chávez has whipped up support with in-your-face opposition to the United States combined with neighborly generosity. He has offered other Latin American nations financial aid and oil while encouraging them to oppose U.S.-led trade overtures. At the Summit of the Americas in early November, he sought to bury a measure Bush has favored, telling a cheering crowd of some 40,000: “Each one of us brought a shovel, a gravedigger’s shovel, because [this] is the tomb of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.” (Before Thanksgiving, he sought to slight Bush by offering discounted heating oil to the poor in a few U.S. cities through his state-run oil company’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo.)

In addition, high-ranking Bush administration officials suggest that Chávez is funneling support to radical movements elsewhere in Latin America, particularly in Colombia and Bolivia. They point to Chávez’s recent purchase of 100,000 Russian AK-47s. Venezuelan officials say they are for use by civilian militias to defend against a U.S. invasion. Oil is another U.S. concern—though perhaps not to the degree Chávez likes to suggest. In 2004, Venezuela was the fourth-ranking oil exporter to the United States, sending approximately 1.3 million barrels a day, or about 8 percent of the total U.S. supply. Chávez has promised to increase shipments to oil-thirsty China, but building a pipeline through Panama for trans-Pacific shipments could take several years and considerable expense. Amore immediate concern, with ramifications for U.S. oil customers, is that Venezuela’s staterun energy company is, by many accounts, going to seed because money that normally would have been reinvested in it has gone instead to Chávez’s social programs.

For now, the U.S.“Empire” is the only geographically feasible market for Chávez’s exports. But oil remains his trump card as he keeps up his enthusiastic spending in the months before this year’s election. And while the new constitution limits him to just one more presidential term, he says he has no plans to retire before 2023.

U.S. officials appear to be making similar calculations. When I asked one how long he thought the revolution might last, he answered glumly, “As long as Chávez lives.”

Among Venezuelans, however, the more pressing question is where Chávez plans to lead them now. chávez’s image as a symbol of success for the downtrodden strikes a chord with the majority of Venezuelans who were dismissed by the rich for so many decades, Barrera says. “He eliminates the shame of being poor, of being darkskinned and not speaking the language very well.” But improved self-esteem would mean little without more tangible results. In recent surveys by the Caracas market research firm Datos, a majority of Venezuelans said they had benefited from government spending on food, education and healthcare. In 2004, the average household income increased by more than 30 percent.

Oil, of course, makes it all possible. The gross domestic product grew by more than 17 percent in 2004, one of the world’s highest rates. The government’s budget for 2005 increased 36 percent, and Chávez also is free to dip into Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves for even more social spending. Officials say they are now moving beyond the showy gifts of La Vega to more transformative achievements, such as creating thousands of workers’ cooperatives, subsidizing small and medium businesses with loans and steering growth outside the cities. Even the military officers who once posed the most serious threat to Chávez’s rule seem to have calmed down after yearly promotions and hefty pay raises. Chávez’s determination to put Venezuela’s poor majority in the limelight has won him support from some unlikely sources. “I’m the only one in my family who sympathizes with him,” Sandra Pestana, the daughter of wealthy industrialists, told me on the evening flight from Houston. “They say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to live here; this guy is crazy.’ ” AU.S.-trained psychologist, Pestana has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1988, but she visits Caracas every year. She grew up accustomed to servants and said it never dawned on her that she had lived “a fairy tale life” until the day she found herself, in tears, cleaning the bathroom in her new home. That epiphany led her to new empathy for the millions of Venezuelans who toil for the upper classes.

Now, Pestana looks back on her youth as “horribly embarrassing,” and yearns to tell her rich relatives “not to flash their money around so much anymore, to be a little bit more sensitive.” Pestana said she sees Chávez as making the country “more like the United States. He’s burst the bubble of colonialism, that’s what he’s done. I don’t like the polarization he has caused, but the rich here were unmovable. . . . From my Americanized eyes, he is democratizing Venezuela.”

Many Venezuelans would take issue with her last point, noting new laws sharply limiting freedom of expression. As of this year, anyone who with “words or in writing or in any other way disrespects the President of the Republic or whomever is fulfilling his duties” can be sent to prison for up to 30 months. Exposing others to “contempt or public hatred” or publishing inaccurate reports causing “public panic or anxiety” invites longer terms.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus