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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From behind the fence, two uniformed guards approached and gently told the crowd to keep waiting. The tall
man ambled back to the end of the line. Another man saw me taking notes and politely asked if I were from the CIA.

Venezuela’s revolutionary future may be played out in scenes like this, as the expectations Chávez has raised start to bottleneck at the figurative palace gates. Unemployment, by government measures, is above 12 percent, and some analysts believe it is actually several points higher. Underemployment, represented by the hundreds of kiosks multiplying in downtown Caracas, has also swelled. Inflation, expected to reach 15 percent in 2005, has been another concern, with economists warning that at the least, Chávez is pursuing good intentions with bad management.

Edmond Saade, president of the Datos polling firm, said his surveys show a marked decline in confidence in the government since April. Yet Saade noted that that feeling had not translated into a rejection of Chávez. “He’s not at all to blame by the general public; he’s adored,” Saade said. Asked how long that might last, he shrugged. “If you manage populism with good controls and efficiency, you can last a long time.

But so far, this is not what Chávez is doing. And if oil prices drop again, the whole revolution becomes a mirage.”

Still, every Venezuelan I talked to said the country has changed in some irreversible ways. The poor have had their first real taste of the country’s wealth, the rich their first experience of sharing it.

“I am very grateful to Chávez,” said Nelson Delgado, the agronomist chauffeur, as he drove me from my country lunch through the treeless exurban slums toward downtown Caracas. But then he predicted, with the confidence of the formerly meek, that with or without Chávez, Venezuela’s revolution would go forward. “It has to,” he said. “Because there are more of us than there are of them.”


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