Robinson’s Footprints

Richard Gott writes about Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan Revolution

The mountains of Venezuela rise up almost sheer from the shores of the Caribbean, with gashes of red earth below and vivid green forest above, the peaks entirely lost in grey cloud. From the aeroplane window I have often liked to imagine this as the land on which the local Indians stood when they first discovered Columbus on their beach in 1498 – although he landed some four hundred miles to the east, on the Peninsula de Paría, across the water from Trinidad.

The plane often flies along the shoreline before landing, past Naiguatá, Macuto and La Guaira, and along to Maiquetía and Catia La Mar, small and rather grubby resorts with a handful of high-rise buildings and barely a couple of streets between the mountains and the polluted beaches. The airlines used to book rooms there for overnight passengers – they lie closer to the airport than Caracas – though visitors would occasionally complain of being robbed. I have eaten excellent fish at the road-side restaurants cantilevered over the beach.

When the plane eventually comes in to land, it does so on a tiny ledge scraped out beneath the mountains, parallel to the shore, and you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the shantytowns climbing up the steep ravines. In the last thirty years or more since I’ve been coming here, I have noticed how a handful of shacks, once crushed between the hills and the shore, have begun creeping up the mountainside to form an almost vertical urban panorama.

The rains have usually finished by the end of November, so when heavy storms struck this coastal area on 15 December last year they were assumed to be the last fling of the rainy season. Despite the regularity of tropical storms and wayward weather systems in the Caribbean, it is rare for a provincial disaster to create a national emergency. And on that particular day, the country’s attention was fixed on the polling booths, where a referendum was being held to support or reject the new Constitution.

Everyone knew there would be a majority for the ‘yes’ campaign, which was led by the popular and charismatic Hugo Chávez, the former Army colonel who had been elected President a year earlier. The only question was the size of the turnout, which might be affected by bad weather. Venezuelans had already been called out to vote five times since November 1998, and even in a country once assumed (perhaps too easily) to be wedded to democratic practices, a referendum whose result was a foregone conclusion must have seemed supererogatory.

Yet Comandante Chávez had called for a respectable vote, and people were happy to comply: 71 per cent voted ‘yes’, and 28 per cent voted ‘no’. It was a good result for the President. Then the heavens opened in earnest Fresh storms brought heavy rain on top of the accumulated waters of previous weeks, causing rivers to rise uncontrollably. In the early morning of 16 December, El Avila, a mountain to the north of Caracas, towering above the coastal resorts by the airport, released a torrent of mud and water. All the way along the narrow coastal strip, from Macuto to Catia La Mar, past the airport at Maiquetía, the hills descended into the sea, carrying with them large numbers of people and houses. In Caracas, too, the floods brought death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Soon the mudslide was being described as Venezuela’s worst natural disaster of the century. An intemperate Catholic bishop implied that it was a judgment of God on the Government, but he was reprimanded by the Foreign Minister, José Vicente Rangel, who said it would be a harsh God that wreaked vengeance on the poorest section of the community. Others recalled that the Church had taken advantage of the famous Caracas earthquake of 1812, in the days of Simón Bolívar, to denounce the actions of the early independence leaders.

The country’s National Assembly, largely filled with Chávez supporters, gave the President emergency powers. Putting on the camouflage uniform and red beret that he had worn eight years earlier when leading a military rebellion against the old order, he took charge of the rescue operations. Football grounds and stadiums were opened as makeshift accommodation for the homeless, and tents were pitched on the outskirts of several military installations. Soldiers manned soup kitchens and started to build houses for refugees on Army land. A month after the tragedy the number of deaths was believed to be between fifteen and twenty thousand with perhaps a hundred thousand people left homeless. The figures are inevitably vague. What we do know is that the Government acted with competence and speed.

When Hugo Chávez, an avowedly radical officer, became President in February last year, he had a handsome majority. He was supported by the vestiges of the Communist Party and half a dozen larger leftist groups of varying hues and trajectories. A left-wing revolutionary might seem to be an anachronism at the beginning of the 21st century, yet Chávez is just that, a Cromwellian figure who proposes to reconstruct his country on new lines.

Moving into the Miraflores palace with a promise to sweep away the ingrained corruption of several decades, he outlined an alternative project for Venezuela that would mark a decisive break with economic neo-liberalism. He would seek to involve his neighbours in a fresh interpretation of the ‘Bolivarian’ dream of the 19th century, the creation of an independent and ‘original’ Latin America that would unite its forces against the outside world. At home, his government would concentrate on agro-industrial projects and food production, and on the country’s ‘endogenous development’, the dream of Latin America’s nationalist Left for nearly half a century. Rather than relying on market forces and globalisation, the state would actively promote the internal development of the country, using its own resources and whatever planning mechanisms might be necessary.

Chávez has created a Fifth Republic, the first recasting of the mould since 1830 (it is now the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’); he has caused the Constitution to be entirely rewritten for the first time since 1961; he has given new rights to the indigenous population, rebuilt the judicial system and established a new, single-chamber National Assembly. He has also begun experimenting with ways of integrating the military into civil society. The new Constitution was debated over a period of only three months, and will doubtless be found wanting. Some paragraphs give weight to greater political decentralisation, with more accountability at a local level, but the general drift is towards a more presidentialist system. By allowing the President to serve a second, consecutive term, it also seems likely to entrench Chávez in office, given the deep disarray of the political parties that might have mounted any opposition.

Reorganising the political superstructure has been seen as a prerequisite to improving the economy, which remains as lamentable as it was when Chávez took over: unemployment and inflation at more than 20 per cent; foreign investment at a standstill. Chávez has had one significant success: he has (with a little help from his partners in Opec) secured a threefold increase in the international oil price, from 9 to 27 dollars a barrel. In consequence, he has a little breathing space, despite the disaster of the floods.

Chávez has also given a few flamboyant signals. During his first month in office he sent a friendly note to the distinguished Venezuelan in mate of a foreign prison, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, nicknamed ‘Carlos the Jackal’ by Guardian reporters in the 1970s. In October last year, at the grave of Mao Zedong, he told the Chinese President that Venezuela was beginning to ‘stand up’, just as the Chinese people had done ‘under the leadership of the Great Helmsman’ himself. In November, during a state visit to Cuba, he played baseball in Havana with a team led by Fidel Castro. He has also invited Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Mohammed Khatami to attend a conference of oil-exporting nations in Caracas later this year.

Behind this ostentatious radicalism lies the desire to bring into existence the multipolar world that the French and the Chinese often talk about, and to show that there is an alternative to the economic consensus that has had such a devastating impact on the poorest populations of the Third World. This, of course, entails a good measure of hostility towards the US. Chávez has refused to allow US planes to enter Venezuelan airspace in the pursuit of Colombian drug-traffickers – rather more than an irritation, given that the US is about to provide Colombia with 1.6 billion dollars in military assistance. In the current peace negotiations being held between the Government in Bogotá and Manuel Marulanda’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Americans are backing the Government; Chávez leans towards the Marulanda camp, and hopes for a FARC presence in the Bogotá Government.

In the latter years of the late unlamented 20th century, such ‘irresponsible’ behaviour on the part of Latin American governments – as in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Panama, not to mention Nicaragua – would have merited an American invasion force, an assassination squad, a counter-insurgency team, or at the very least a plot ‘to make the economy scream’. Nothing untoward has so far happened in Venezuela, although we do not, of course, know what plans may be under consideration in the deeper recesses of Washington. At any rate, now that the Cold War has ended the Americans can no longer denounce their critics to the South as the puppets of Moscow.

The gadarene rush from the countryside to Caracas in the 1970s, followed by the economic stagnation and unemployment of the 1980s, led to social breakdown in Venezuela. As in many of the other megacities of Latin America, law and order are virtually absent from the capital. It is a city under siege, with each shopping centre barricaded by steel fences, each residential street marked off with a guardhouse and a lifting road barrier, and each block of flats protected by armed wardens. The rich live behind high walls with their own private security guards; the youthful poor survive by organising their own armed gangs. The middle class, sandwiched miserably in between, live in constant fear for their property and their lives.

In February 1989, the poor from the surrounding hills descended for a week of indiscriminate looting throughout the city. Hundreds of people were killed during the subsequent repression, a reminder of how thin the veneer of class tolerance had become. The event, soon called the Caracazo, was triggered by a rise in the price of petrol; bus fares went up and simmering anger turned to active rebellion. The police, on strike at the time, were ill-prepared. When the TV began to show people looting in Caracas and the police standing around and letting it happen, citizens in other cities saw it as an invitation to join in.

The country’s ancien régime, like that of the Soviet Union, had been groping towards new models ever since the late 1950s, when Venezuela had all the attributes of an Eastern European one-party state. As in neighbouring Colombia, however, there were two parties rather than one, with a turn-and-turn-about arrangement. The largest and most significant, Acción Democrática, had the hegemonic role, but to keep up the pretence that Venezuela was a democracy, an alternative Christian Democrat party, Copei, was allowed on occasion to win elections, though it had no real power. This cynical agreement was reached in the so-called Pact of Punto Fijo, signed in 1958, which effectively ensured that other parties, of left or right, would be prevented from taking power.

Acción Democrática and Copei both had large memberships. You joined a party to get a job and keep it. The party leaders, and the bosses of their allied trade unions, were accustomed to a range of perks, particularly in the state industries created from oil revenues. Corruption became endemic, within the ranks of Acción Democrática but also in the wider banking and commercial community, and it snowballed over the years. Famous throughout the continent, it created a fierce desire for revenge among the Venezuelan poor.

Carlos Andrés Pérez of Acción Democrática, an archetypal Third World leader with a penchant for stealing from the state, ruled from 1974 to 1979, and took the strong statist line that was popular during the boom years. The rights to oil extraction were taken away from Shell, Exxon and other foreign companies, and state funds were poured into industrial development, to the applause of left-wing nationalists everywhere. Such was the flow of oil money in those years that even today there is still much to show for it, mostly in the southern region of Guayana: mines, foundries, industrial complexes and the gigantic hydroelectric dam at Guri on the Caroní River, capable of supplying Venezuela’s needs – and those of much of northern Brazil as well.

Over the years, however, the state sector – inefficient and uncompetitive, overmanned and corrupt – was starved of fresh investment and the great industrial enterprises began to rust away. New projects were quickly abandoned. The country, meanwhile, accumulated an immense foreign debt. Finally, in 1989, plans were drawn up to restructure the economy on neo-liberal lines. Returned to power that year with a mandate to revive the ‘good old days’ of his earlier Presidency, Pérez unexpectedly changed tack. With no advance warning, his Government steered the economy out into the turbulent waters of the free market, the liberalised economy and international competition.

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