In Venezuela at the end of June, Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez and Diego Maradona, three heroes of the people in Latin America, kicked off the Copa América. Morales, pleased with his dribbling, kept possession for rather longer than might have been thought polite. When he passed, Chávez, instinctive politician that he is, at once flicked the ball on to the feet of the Hand of God. (He originally wanted to be a baseball player. Football is not his game.) What was important was that his largesse had secured the Copa for his country, thereby strengthening his popular appeal at home, enhancing his determination to be a presence in Latin America, and allowing him to cast a mote, as he likes to do, in the eye of the United States.
Chávez’s election in Venezuela in 1998 and his repeated victories since, Morales’s in Bolivia in 2005 and Rafael Correa’s in Ecuador in 2006, together with governments of a more moderately leftish inclination in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and, it now seems, Nicaragua, have excited wide attention. Washington is nervous of the more extreme leaders, all of whom gain easy support at home by attacking it, and makes no secret of its particular distaste for the new Venezuela. Two years ago, in her list of ‘outposts of tyranny’, Condoleezza Rice included only one country in the Americas, Cuba. Chávez, already close to Cuba, has responded by supporting two more of those Rice deplored, Zimbabwe and Iran; has persuaded a fourth, North Korea, to move its one Latin American embassy to Caracas; and has gone so far as to describe a fifth, Lukashenko’s beleaguered Belarus, as ‘a model social state of the kind that we are trying to create’. Sober liberal observers, like the International Crisis Group, an NGO founded by Mark Malloch Brown in 1995, more quietly worry about the absence of checks on presidential power in Venezuela and the possibility that Bolivia will actually fall apart. Enthusiastic radicals, like Tariq Ali and Diana Raby, suggest that a truly popular socialism has been reborn in these places. And rebirth, Ali thinks, is half the battle. Raby, convinced that the battle can be won, and whose hopes for it extend even to Europe, believes that when it is won, the new politics, having a sounder base, will prove to be more resilient than the old. Of others with an interest in the matter, the Foreign Office may not be alone in believing that we have nothing at all to learn from such countries.
Notwithstanding his compliment to Lukashenko, Chávez might say he has little to learn from us. Simón Bolívar, the hero of the liberation of several South American territories from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century and Chávez’s own rhetorical inspiration, insisted that those he was trying to carry with him were not just the criollos, of Spanish descent. There were Indians and Africans also, and each group had been affected by its relations with the others. The new republics should not therefore try to imitate what was being achieved in Europe and the United States. ‘If we do not invent,’ Bolívar’s tutor, Simón Rodríguez, had impressed on him, ‘we err,’ and Chávez repeats the point. One can nonetheless see why the European left has the hopes it has. All three presidents are in favour of the poor and against foreign support for the rich. And Chávez, who, his opponents like to say, has no brain in his tongue, does like the old language. He has mentioned Trotsky, talked of teaching Marxism, and after his recent re-election, announced a ‘socialism for the 21st century’. One can also see why liberals are nervous. There is no doubt about the elections. Each president gained between 53 and 63 per cent of a large vote, and apart from some doubts about null and spoiled ballots in the second round in Ecuador, where voting is compulsory, the process in each was declared to have been fair. Each government also respects civil and political rights. Constitutionally, however, they are all unsettled. Morales, the former leader of coca growers who comes from one of the two large indigenous groups in Bolivia, and Correa, a dissident finance minister in the short-lived previous administration who describes himself as a Catholic humanist, both face obstruction from their congresses. Both are fighting to reduce their opponents’ constitutional advantages. Chávez has been more fortunate. He was able to promulgate a new constitution in his first year. This extended the scope of referendums, ended the exclusion of the military from politics, and increased the power of the centre. But he does not now think it enough. There is to be a referendum in December on moving in a more determinedly ‘socialist’ direction, and the assembly has meanwhile granted him power of decree until next summer. He is, for the moment, secure. The other two, as yet, are not.
Tariq Ali’s account of Venezuela and Bolivia is exuberant and good to read. Diana Raby’s account of how Chávez’s Venezuela has come to be is one of the best (she is an academic as well as an activist). And the Crisis Group’s fair-mindedness is admirable. But the languages of socialist hope and liberal fear, although not absent from Latin America itself, do not there connote what they do to us. The criollos were Catholic, and their republican ambitions, like their opponents’, have inclined more to the irreducibly collectivist conceptions of what Benjamin Constant, lamenting the French Revolution, called ‘ancient liberty’. The new radicals, like Bolívar, who was Constant’s contemporary and admired what had been happening in France, take this to mean the liberty of an inclusive nation, and give it a socialist cast. But until the late 20th century, the criollos’ refined sense of racial difference (made all the more acute by much cross-breeding) led them to keep active citizenship, and in practice much of the vote, to themselves. Unlike those who made the new United States, they also continued to be mercantilist, disposed to extract wealth rather than produce it. The result was a defensive oligarchic greed. In some countries, this until recently remained much as it had been. Landed classes and mine owners presided over excluded populations of poor workers on large estates, small plots and in the mining towns. In others, the collapse of markets for beef, coffee, metals and other primary products at the end of the 1920s, and the consequent loss of income to buy things from abroad, prompted industrialisation and a ‘modernising’ politics, in which aspiring industrial and commercial classes co-opted new working classes, all mainly white, to fight the barons. But the rural workers and miners, indigenous peoples and those of mixed descent, were still ignored. In all except Mexico, which had had a revolution before the Depression, the military – conservative in the unreconstructed states, disposed to be progressive in those that were changing, and not infrequently divided in them all – took it on themselves to be the guardians of republican integrity. Politics remained a series of more or less continuous battles within the criollo elite.
The elite in Bolivia ruled over a large indigenous population working mines or scrabbling a poor living on the western altiplano, mestizos working on estates in the east, and migrants, like Morales’s family, growing coca there. In Ecuador, the exportable resource has been oil (the country is Latin America’s second exporter), but that has employed few; for the rest of the inhabitants, which includes a smaller proportion of indigenous people, the story has been much the same as in Bolivia. In both countries, a fall in commodity prices in the 1980s and 1990s, and debts that became accordingly difficult to service, led governments to accede to the disciplines of the international financial institutions and rising destitution. The criollo governments fell apart in swift succession and the excluded, moved in part by what was happening in Venezuela, began to demand a voice.
Venezuela had been an unimportant territory for the Spaniards, a mere captaincy. There was little good land and no gold or silver. What there was was abundant oil, which American companies found around Lake Maracaibo in 1918. (The indigenous people, who lived in huts over the edge of the lake, used to set fires on its surface. It was the lights from these that reminded Spanish sailors of Venice. Hence the territory’s name.) By 1935 and the death of Juan Vicente Gómez, a canny caudillo who was to arrange for exploitation by Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, the country’s notional income per head was the highest in Latin America. Gómez’s civilian successors, overcome by a military coup in 1948, recovered their authority ten years later and agreed a pact by which left and right of centre parties would aim, through elections, to alternate in government, denying the armed forces (and ‘communists’) access to it. This political class proceeded to take large amounts of state revenue for itself (oil production was nationalised in 1976), made a few industrial investments (metal companies produced trade unions that are now hostile to Chávez’s championing of the poor), and extended a placating patronage. In the mid-1980s, however, the price of oil fell, borrowings made against future revenue could not be repaid, the patronage dried up, and in February 1989, faced with rising prices imposed in an emergency agreement with the IMF, the poor came down from the barrios in Caracas to riot. Chávez had already in 1982 sworn ‘horror a la oligarquía,’ and from inside the army began to conspire. In 1992, he attempted a coup; other young officers tried and failed again later in the year. Discharged from the service, and released early from prison, he decided to stand for president and in 1998 he won.
The once comfortable elite, having run a country which they regarded as their own, and believing that even if Chávez were to win, they could adopt the dollar and continue to run it, were soon furious, and still are. His constituency, the poor in the countryside and those who had come to the cities hoping for pickings in the former prosperity, were ecstatic, and remain so. Personally compelling and a gifted rhetorician, Chávez fanned a discontent that had become all the more intense because the promise of wealth had been so suddenly snatched away. His support has since been augmented by many in the middle class and some now from the old elite who have become persuaded by his sincerity, his energy and his novel refusal to profit financially from his position.
It is a distinctively Latin American story. Yet a comparison does come to mind. Thucydides said of Pericles, the political general who extended the ‘ancient liberty’ in Athens in the 440s and 430s BC, that he had ‘advantages in abundance’. Indeed he reported Pericles himself as having told the Athenians that he had them all: an ability to see what to do, the capacity to expound it to an audience, unimpeachable patriotism, and an indifference to personal gain. Pericles was a rich patrician from a distinguished line. Chávez, part criollo, part Indian, part African (the three constituencies of the Venezuela that Bolívar described), shares his gifts. He is the son of a poor primary-school teacher in the provinces; he joined the army, he says, to play baseball in the military leagues. Athens had a wide empire, whose tribute it had to strain to maintain. Chávez has oil, which once he had managed to wrest Petróleos de Venezuela away from directors who favoured American buyers and their own pockets (eventually firing them on television in terms borrowed from baseball), he has not had to defend against anyone. And the tribute of the markets (the US remains the largest) meanwhile rose from $9 a barrel in 1999 to more than $60 in 2006 and touched $80 this summer. Both Pericles and Chávez, however, can be seen to have been carried away by their own success. Pericles insisted that Athens could win against Sparta; yet his very insistence suggested that he knew the risks, and was anxious.
Chávez is showing something of the same anxiety. His government wisely budgets on an oil price of $29 a barrel. And although it continues optimistically to assume an annual production half as large again as Petróleos can presently manage (the infrastructure groans from lack of earlier investment), it still has sums at its command, not least from reserves in the central bank, that few revolutionary regimes anywhere, of any stripe, have been able even to imagine. It has been spending its revenue generously. Adult literacy is complete, there are new schools across the country, and excellent free medical facilities, staffed in many cases by doctors from Cuba sent as payment in kind for oil; basic foods, with some reluctance from suppliers, are sold at subsidised prices; poor housewives are paid for keeping house and people owed pensions are again receiving them. Getting around the country is also becoming much easier: railways are being built, urban transport is improving, and one meets roadworks in the remotest places. Most important, the government is trying to increase productive employment. With help from Petróleos, it has spent nearly $900 million on 130 ‘nuclei of endogenous development’ in manufacturing, agriculture and tourism, and a further $400 million to encourage more than six thousand co-operatives. It is also attempting to redistribute uncultivated land. To encourage these initiatives, it has announced the creation of 12,000 local communal councils. Some corporations are also being nationalised. The only price of this so far is an overvalued currency, which makes imports cheap and exports, apart from oil, too expensive.
It is too soon to decide how successful these moves will be. Poorer Venezuelans used to greet one in resentful mock deference. Now, they look one in the eye, tease and laugh. Chávez himself is adored when he appears before them. Roars greet his jibes at ‘Satan’ in the White House (an insult to the devil, Correa has said), and the Copa América was a popular coup. He also seeks support abroad. He has bought Argentinian bonds, provided cheap power to northern Brazil, offered to refine Ecuador’s oil at cost, is selling Venezuela’s own at below-market prices to Bolivia and several other countries in the continent as well as to the state of Massachusetts and the Greater London Authority. He has started a continental television station to counter CNN and connect with Al Jazeera. He has resisted an American free trade area, proposed a Banco del Sur to displace what is in fact the now reduced influence of the IMF and World Bank, expanded trade with China, which is investing in the extraction of heavy oils in the Orinoco basin, made co-operative arrangements with Iran, and opened a string of embassies in Africa. He wants, he says, to encourage a world-wide counter-hegemony, ‘outposts of tyranny’ and all, to the United States.
Chávez, in short, never stops. And like Pericles towards the end of what had been 15 years in office, he knows that he now cannot. In the constitutional changes for which he will seek approval in December, there will be provision for presidents to be re-elected more than once. He needs more time to use his power, and el pueblo are at once the people he wants to use it for and those whose support he needs in order to sustain it. To achieve what he has to, above all to get more of the poor properly employed, he believes that he has to stay in office until at least 2021. There is a case. There is no obvious successor and institutions are still weak. But he is anxious. He has brought the army into the ministries and other public work, revived the National Guard, and created a separate Territorial Guard. There is also a new Francisco de Miranda Front, ten thousand young ‘foot soldiers of the revolution’ who are for the moment involved in social ‘missions’. They were trained in Cuba and, the government says, they are to be given Kalashnikovs to defend the regime if they have to. These forces are all directly responsible to the executive. So too are the community councils, who may thereby undermine the discretion of provincial governors and local mayors. Checks provided in the existing constitution – by the courts, an independent comptroller general and an ombudsman – will remain, but these can already seem not to be quite as independent as they might be.
Chávez’s re-election last December has been called a landslide. Yet more than a third of voters cast against him. The political opposition, although fierce, can still be brainless. These escuálidos, as he calls them, ‘the squalid ones’ – they have come to rather relish the name – were foolish to let one of their media, the grotesque Radio Caracas Televisión, lie its way through an attempted coup in 2002 and continue to lie; in May, Chávez refused to renew the station’s public licence, though it remains online. The opposition was also self-pityingly silly to boycott the assembly elections at the end of 2005. But it may not be impotent for ever. Its more sensible members, like the provincial governor who stood against Chávez last December, see that the poor have now to be included, and only 15 per cent or so of electors would have to switch their vote to defeat Chávez at the next election. He says that he would accept that. But even if he were to, the Crisis Group and others wonder whether the new armed forces might not see themselves as responsible for continuing the revolution. Those leaders in Latin America now who are constrained to be more moderate – Lula in Brazil, and the beleaguered Michelle Bachelet in Chile – may privately hope that this revolution will fail, or at least that like Daniel Ortega, elected again last November for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Chávez will suffer a social democratic conversion. The more radical, like Morales and Correa, will hope that he succeeds, but neither they, nor any of Chávez’s more distant new friends, will be in a position to affect what happens. Like Pericles in extending the popular democracy in Athens, he has woken a tiger that he has at present no choice but to ride alone. Socialists elsewhere will no doubt continue to enthuse, but Venezuela will in the end be on its own.