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.

The new economic programme undermined the entrenched political system, meeting with sustained opposition both on the streets and within the ruling parties. In spite of the surface opulence of the urban middle class, most people in Latin America are much closer to the breadline than their counterparts in Eastern Europe. The old party bosses, understandably, were bitterly opposed to Venezuela’s perestroika. Quite apart from the inherent difficulty of making the country more competitive, a huge structure of vested interest would have to be dismantled.

In February 1992, three years after the Caracazo, the 38-year-old Colonel Chávez made his dramatic appearance: a military leader promising to overthrow the corrupt politicians, improve the conditions of the poor and move the country onto a fresh course. The commanding officer of a parachute regiment in Maracay, an hour’s drive from Caracas, he was well placed to challenge the ancien régime by staging a coup.

The attempt to seize the Presidential palace in Caracas was a failure. Chávez surrendered, and appeared on television urging his fellow conspirators elsewhere to surrender their arms. ‘Comrades,’ he said, ‘unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set ourselves have not been achieved in the capital.’ The phrase ‘for the moment’, por ahora, caught the popular imagination. The aims of the rebellion had not been secured, but most people believed that Chávez would return to the struggle at a later date. Por ahora became his slogan, and the red beret of the parachute regiment his logo. Rangel is convinced that Chávez’s TV appearance turned him into a strong supporter of press freedom: ‘He failed when he used the gun, and triumphed when he had access to the media. He spent ten years preparing a coup d’ état that failed militarily; the minute they allowed him on television was enough to conquer the country.’ In a continent where the influence of evangelical sects has begun to rival that of the Catholic Church, the arrival of Colonel Chávez on the scene was greeted as though it were the Second Coming.

He spent two years in prison, but news of the revolutionary project on which he had been working with fellow officers soon leaked out. Resurrecting three South American heroes from the 19th century – Bolívar; Bolívar’s revolutionary teacher, Simón Rodríguez; and Ezequiel Zamora, leader of the peasants against the landed oligarchy in the Federal Wars of the 1840s and 1850s – Chávez began to sketch out a politics of revolutionary nationalism. He spoke, above all, against globalisation, and was soon topping the public opinion polls, his support coming principally from the shantytowns of Caracas and the forgotten regions of the interior. The mass of the people are with Chávez, just as, in other countries and at other times, they have been with Castro, with Perón, with Torríjos and with Allende. Chávez still speaks to them almost every day, in the language of the evangelical preacher. God and Satan, good and evil, pain and love, are the antitheses that he uses most often.

Chávez’s roots lie in the revolutionary traditions of the Venezuelan Left, particularly those which led many young people in the 1960s to take part in a prolonged Cuban-style insurrection. Some of the guerrillas of that era had their origins in splinter groups from Acción Democrática; some came from the Communist Party; others had worked with radical groups within the Armed Forces. Many survivors of that period, now in their late sixties, are still active in politics today: with Chávez, or in opposition. Chávez had spent time cultivating the civilian Left when planning his coup, and in government he has drawn on the talents of several people who come from the radical traditions of the 1960s – and even earlier. Ali Rodríguez Araque, his Minister of Energy and Mines, who has spearheaded the revival of Opec, was a guerrilla fighter in Falcón state, and later involved in an important left-wing party, La Causa Radical. Lino Martínez, the Minister of Labour, was also once a guerrilla. Half a dozen former guerrillas can be found among the Chávez supporters in the National Assembly.

Luís Miquilena and Rangel, both civilians and both friends, are his most intimate political advisers. Both have been around for nearly half a century and spent time in prison or exile. Rangel, now aged 70, and one of the great charmers of Latin American politics, was the Presidential candidate of the Left on three occasions. Miquilena, the president of the National Assembly, was a leader of the bus drivers’ union in Caracas in the 1940s and the co-founder of an anti-Stalinist Communist Party in 1946. Now a sprightly 83-year-old, he was an important figure in Chávez’s election campaign. As an old Leninist, he played a central part in shaping the alliance of soldiers and civilians – the Fifth Republic Movement – that supported Chávez. He went on to become the first Minister of the Interior in the new Government.

Some revolutionaries of the 1960s now oppose Chávez from the right. Their leader, Teodoro Petkoff, was once a prominent Communist as well as a minister in the previous Government. Throughout 1999, he was the editor of an influential evening paper, El Mundo, opposed to Chávez. (He was sacked by the paper’s proprietor in December on what appear to have been commercial grounds.) Among his columnists were a number of guerrilla fighters who had made the journey from Cuban-style socialism to social democracy.

Opposing Chávez from the left is Douglas Bravo, the guerrilla leader in Falcón in the 1960s and perhaps the best known of the leftists of the past. Bravo collaborated with Chávez on his revolutionary project in the 1980s, on the assumption that it would be a genuinely civilian-military operation. He withdrew after 1992 when he felt that civilians were being by-passed, and that Chávez’s programme was insufficiently radical.

Years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Caracas awaiting a call to interview Bravo in the hills. As so often used to happen, the contacts were never established, but some three decades later, in November last year, I finally caught up with him. Now in his late sixties, he tells me that he knew Chávez quite well when the future President was a junior officer conspiring against the Government. ‘Chávez is an intelligent man’ Bravo says, ‘he is bold, charismatic, and an excellent speaker; he has a natural ability to command.’ But he is also ‘quite capable of making sudden changes in direction ... He can easily make agreements with one group, and then abandon them when he makes a deal with another.’ Rangel takes Chávez’s shortcomings more calmly: ‘It’s a mistake to demonise Chávez, just as it is an error to sanctify him. If he had not emerged, there would certainly have been somebody else. Fortunately, this has proved the best way to secure change, peacefully and with civilians. After all, we might easily have had a Pinochet.’

Chávez has his own Sunday-morning radio phone-in programme. On the air, he is at his didactic best, illustrating, explaining and arguing. It is difficult to overestimate the impact that his broadcasts make on the largest and poorest section of the Venezuelan population. On television, he will often appear to be speaking to an invited audience immediately in front of him. Then he will suddenly turn, as though to another camera, to address the audience that matters, out there in the rural areas and the shantytowns. It is always an electrifying performance, though the middle class in Caracas, and a plethora of hostile newspaper columnists, invariably complain about his rough and simple language. ‘Chávez is much more of an intellectual than people think,’ Rangel tells me, ‘a mixture of passion and calculation ... he really enjoys permanent confrontation ... He likes polemic and seeks it out.’ I was about to interview the President and became rather nervous: would I be sufficiently stimulating?

When I was first taken to meet him last month at La Casona, the Presidential residence in Caracas that his troops had once tried and failed to seize, he was standing in the garden with his back to me, gazing out towards the small forest of bamboos and palms fringing the far end of the lawn. Since he is on television most days of the week, making impromptu speeches, greeting protocol visitors at the Miraflores palace, or glad-handing his way through a flooded shantytown, everyone knows what he looks like. They are familiar with his pugilist’s face, his beaming grin, and the almost imperceptible asthmatic tic of his mouth as he takes a breath or is caught searching for a word in mid-rhetorical flow. He always seems decisive, confident, optimistic. Yet, alone in the garden, dressed in a grey suit, he appeared more vulnerable, a monochrome and ambiguous sculpture on a green lawn.

Finally he turned round and walked across the grass to greet me. I was reminded for a moment of Yo el Supremo, the magnificent novel by the Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos about José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the ascetic Robespierrean President of Paraguay who isolated his country for thirty years in the early part of the 19th century. Chávez has a similar messianic streak. The damp heat of the early morning, the lush colours of the tropical garden and the verandah columns of a replica 18th-century colonial building seemed to insist on the past as much as the present. Our lengthy conversation – much of it devoted to his plan to reverse the movement of people from the countryside into the urban shantytowns – had a timeless quality to it. This was an issue that Presidents and colonial Viceroys in Latin America had been wrestling with for centuries.

You could say that December’s tragedy had come as a blessing in disguise for the President’s programme, since it was going to enable him to embark more or less straightaway on his plan to move hundreds of thousands of people from the crowded cities of northern Venezuela to new economic centres in the sparsely populated east and south of the country. In these now empty lands he was planning to develop agro-industrial projects that would allow him to cajole people living in the shantytowns into starting a new life in the countryside.

Politicians and urban planners have argued for years about what to do with the gigantic urban conglomerations of Latin America, the old capital cities housing millions of people for whom there are few real homes or jobs. To move urban dwellers back to the country and reverse the drift to the towns is nonetheless a tall order, even for a government with a well thought-out plan. Chávez’s amibition flies in the face of historical experience – few people hanker after the life of the peasant – and early reports indicated that most survivors of the recent mudslide wanted to cling to their ruined hillside homes. Even so, some people were delighted by the prospect of being given new land and new housing.

Today we are in tutorial mode, as Chávez explains how the exploitation of oil in the 1920s had led to the collapse of the rural economy, bringing an end to Venezuela’s old ‘balanced and harmonious model’, whereby the cultivation of coffee, sugar and cocoa in the country had marched in step with the industrial development of the towns. ‘The government simply gave up on the countryside, and what the history books call “the peasant exodus” began ... This was not,’ he assures me, ‘because the peasants wanted to leave, but because the rural areas were abandoned by the government.’ As always, he uses an example close to home. ‘This is something that I have felt ever since I was a child; I never wanted to move away from my home village, but I had to go; I was drawn into the city by a centrifugal force.’ The aim of his policies now is ‘to make this force go in the opposite direction’.

When he finished sixth grade at his village school in Sabaneta, he was obliged to leave. ‘If I wanted to continue studying, which I did – my father was a teacher – then I would have to go Barinas, which was a larger town, the state capital. But if there had been a secondary school in Sabaneta, I wouldn’t have had to go.’ When it came to further education, Barinas had no university. ‘All my brothers had to travel to the university in Mérida, and I had to come to Caracas, to the military academy.’ It was the same with health care. ‘People who needed attention had to go to Barquisimeto or Caracas. Even our local sportsmen had to leave. Peasants left when they lost their land to the great haciendas. There was a massive exodus.’

Chávez points out that Venezuelans have been migrating for many years to the urbanised parts of the coast: ‘80 per cent of the population is now concentrated here.’ It is not only ‘a seismic zone of a quite worrying kind’, but has also seen ‘an immense accumulation of people into ranchos’ – the shantytowns on the hillsides. There is nothing new about the December tragedy, only its size. ‘A hundred people are killed every year when the rains come, and now we’ve got fifteen thousand. We’ve been warning people of this for years. In Caracas there must have been thousands of victims over the last twenty or thirty years.’ This is Chávez’s trump card, and he has given it much thought ‘We already had a project for the country, dealing with its socio-political problems and the economy. We had been discussing it in prison, and even before that, for when we first organised a military rebellion – we didn’t do it in an irrational way.’ When he came out of prison in 1994, he says, he was already determined to be President. ‘At the very first press conference, a journalist asked me, “What are you going to do now?” and I said: “I am going to get into power.” ’

When he was in the Army there was ‘always a struggle with the muchachos who came from the rural areas to do their military service. They were brought to the cities, to the barracks in Caracas, and of course when they saw the city and everything that the city has to offer, they didn’t want to return to the country. For there they would have no land and no work, nothing, just a shack to go home to. Military service was another factor that helped to force people into the towns. So we believe that “lines of return migration”, chiefly designed to ensure that some kind of economic activity will be available, are absolutely fundamental.’

Previous governments, he tells me, had made efforts in this direction. In the 1980s, under President Jaime Lusinchi, a settlement was established south of the River Arauca on the frontier with Colombia. It was called Pueblo Bolívar. ‘Along with many others, I always said that this just wasn’t going to work. They created a village in the middle of summer, on the banks of the Arauca, and brought people from far away. They virtually forced them to come, paying them something to go and live there. It was a wholly artificial place: there was no economic activity of any kind. Look, if this is the town, and all the land around it is latifundio, where are these people going to work? In winter, the roads were covered with water; people had neither cattle nor land, and they were given no credit ... They built a school, but the teacher never turned up. Little by little, they began leaving, to look for a proper life somewhere else.’

The solution decided on by the Chávez Government has been to establish ‘integrated centres’ of development. ‘One of the projects we’ve been discussing is called Proyecto País – Poblaciones Agro-Industriales Sustentables – and we are now beginning to put it into operation. We have been working on it since last year, but the catastrophe in December has given us an opportunity to do something more ambitious ... Yesterday we were in Cumaná, handing out houses. All the beaches there are very contaminated, filled with rubbish, and we are making a plan to rehabilitate them. We’ve put aside ten million dollars to clean up the coast. This is a much better zone for a large population than the coast near Caracas. There’s much more room between the mountains and the sea. It’s good for fishing, for tourism, too, and for agriculture.’

Another site for resettlement is the hydro-electric plant at Guri in the east of the country, south of the Orinoco. Houses had been left empty there by the workmen who built the great dam on the Caroní River. ‘I went to talk to the flood victims camped in the Caracas stadium, ten thousand of them, and I told them about Guri. First I had to explain to them where it was. Two of them – and they may have been drunk – said immediately: “Yes, we’ll go to Guri.” Then, after two weeks of a promotional campaign, with photographs and videos, a group went to have a look. I told them that they didn’t have to stay if they didn’t want to.’

The visit was a great success. ‘We have established a community there of perhaps two thousand people. So many people wanted to go that we had to apply the brakes. After living through their various personal tragedies, they are now painting and remodelling the old apartments, and even making their own furniture out of local wood – this is a region of Venezuela with many resources. The children are studying at the secondary school that already existed there. Workshops have been set up, and the Government has been looking around for land. ‘Around these houses are ten thousand hectares suitable for agriculture and for fishing; there’s a huge lake created by the dam. Sporting tourism will be possible, indeed tourism of all types, because there are waterfalls nearby and the Gran Sabana, the great savannah. There’s a lot of space, and it’s very healthy.’

Warming to his theme, he calls for a map and stabs with his pencil at other areas of the country where people might yet be settled. ‘Look, this is the Apure-Orinoco axis,’ and he points to the course of the Orinoco and its tributary the Apure. The rivers cross Venezuela from west to east, from the Andes to the Atlantic. ‘This territory has been virtually abandoned; it will not be necessary to make new towns here, we will simply strengthen the settlements that already exist.’

La Fría, under the slopes of the Andes, close to the Colombian border, is another place where the homeless survivors of the floods might be resettled. ‘Here is the village, with about ten thousand inhabitants,’ Chávez said, pointing at the place on the map. ‘It’s a wonderfully rich region, at the foot of the mountains. I once worked there in a military unit, and we used to go out on patrol.’ He pulls the map forward again. ‘Look, here is the frontier with Colombia, here is the international airport, here is an abandoned industrial site. Here is the land, here are some houses, and here we will put in a school, a workshop, and a road.’ He explains that ‘all this was done ten years ago in the days of Carlos Andrés Pérez. They spent thousands and thousands of bolívares, and then Pérez himself abandoned it.’

He told me he had scheduled a visit to La Fría for the following week. ‘Why don’t you come with us?’ he asked abruptly. I explained that I had a return ticket to London in three days’ time. ‘Well, we could go the day after tomorrow, on Wednesday. We were planning to go somewhere else then, to Zulia, but that can easily wait.’ He summoned his aide-de-camp, sitting in view but out of earshot. ‘Get me General Cruz Weffer on the phone,’ he said, and within half a minute he was through to the Chief of Staff. ‘Look, I think we’ll go to La Fría on Wednesday. How much is ready? How many families have you got? What sort of state is it in?’ He paused to listen to a stuttering reply. ‘Well, tell them to get a move on.’

So, early on Wednesday morning, with the sun barely over the hills that surround the city, I waited for him in the officers’ lounge at the small airport of La Carlota in the centre of Caracas, where the Venezuelan Air Force is based, while a secret service agent crawled under the sofas to check for bombs. When Chávez arrived, wearing his camouflage uniform and red beret, we set off in the Presidential plane for the Colombian border, an hour’s flight away. Half the Cabinet came too.

We landed at the deserted airport, the grass growing between the squares of the concrete runway. A military band greeted the President, and, after the usual military formalities, we climbed into four large helicopters to fly to a military farm nearby, at Guarumito. From the air, the settlement looks pitifully isolated, a huddle of tin roofs surrounded by the savannah stretching into the distance well past the Colombian border. On the ground, things look marginally more encouraging. We land on a piece of hard track beside a swamp where a small group of workers is busy repairing a dozen of the bungalows we have seen from the air. Most of them are wearing yellow rubber boots, but an officer is criticising three boys in flip-flops.

The moment Chávez alights from his helicopter he is mobbed by a crowd that appears from nowhere. He slowly makes his way to a large converted caravan that serves as a mobile training workshop. This is the civilian component in this military-civilian operation, run by the Government’s national training institute. It contains carpentry benches and simple electric saws. Chávez interrogates the education supervisor, a nervous civilian: How long have you been here? When will it all begin? When are the teachers coming?

‘The teachers are being selected,’ says the supervisor apologetically, ‘but none have arrived yet.’

‘Yes,’ says Chávez, ‘we know all about that. People get involved, and then they leave. A month later everything’s back to square one. You have to be really careful who you choose.’

He continues to badger the wretched supervisor. ‘You’ve got to be more productive. Why don’t you put up some tents, build another building, bring more people in?’ He discovers that the supervisor drives backwards and forwards every day from the town, five minutes in the helicopter, an hour each way by car. ‘You can’t do that all the time,’ he says, ‘you’ll get exhausted. Why don’t you try staying here in a tent? Don’t forget how important this job is. We are not teaching them so that they can go off somewhere else. We want people to stay here. We are colonising the country with our own people. How many times have we failed in the past? We can’t fail this time’ The supervisor, in the tidy dark suit of a state official, nods in agreement, but he looks appalled.

I talk to Jorge Giordani, the man behind the plan for internal development A radical economist and a university professor, who studied at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the days of the late Dudley Seers, he had been the economic guru of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), a social democratic party established in the 1970s that now supports Chávez. Giordani had been working with his students on the formulation of a programme to revitalise the rural areas. The two men got on well together, and he became Chávez’s economics tutor, supervising his university thesis and, rather later, paying him regular visits in prison. Now he is Minister for Planning.

Chávez meanwhile is interrogating the Commanding Officer, from whom he discovers that some of the land here has been taken over by squatters who have been cutting down the trees and selling the wood. ‘I want to know urgently who sold off the land. Anyone caught cutting down trees will go to prison. It’s absolutely illegal. I want to know who owns the land round here in a 50 kilometre radius. I know there are lots of people who own land here who actually live in Miami or in London. We shall expropriate it. The new Constitution allows us to do so, but we shall pay for it of course.’

Then he starts asking what the land could produce. ‘What used to be grown in this region? What did the Indians grow? Is milk production really the best idea, or would vegetables be better?’ The audience start chipping in with their views, and eventually everyone agrees that this is good land for cattle. Chávez says sternly that he will soon return to see how they are getting on, and he warns them that he may fly in without warning.

We walk round to the bungalows that are about to be officially handed over to their new owners. They have been built in a circle, around a central plaza, and each has a patch of land out behind. Most of the 24 families being provided with a house come from the sites of the coastal tragedy, some from Naiguatá, though a handful come from the site of a similar disaster nearby. One of these local men tells me that his maize and yucca plantation was carried away by floods. ‘We have no money, no capital, we need help,’ he says. When I ask him to put his name in my notebook, he apologises for not being able to write.

The houses are not a gift to the settlers: they will live in them rent-free only for a year. After that, they will have to pay a regular quota to the co-operative that formally owns them. ‘You are very daring to have come here,’ Chávez tells them, ‘and to found a new town. It is not easy for anyone to move from the sea coast to the inland savannah. Yet just think, we only started two weeks ago, and in a few months’ time there will be a thousand homes here.’ He tells them not to be worried about the isolation. ‘We are going to build a railway line that will pass near here, from the Apure River to Lake Maracaibo.’ A final note of warning: ‘Please don’t call your roads or houses after me. I don’t want to be remembered with anything like the “Raúl Leoni motorway”.’

Our gaggle of ministers and hangers-on moves back to the helicopters, and we fly off to view another project abandoned by the ancien régime, an immense industrial park, said to be the largest in South America. Chávez again plunges into the waiting crowd, to discover what it is they want. They have been living here for some years, and they only want one thing: work.

Chávez conducts an impromptu seminar with his ministers, as the man in charge explains what used to happen in each empty shed and warehouse. They discuss what will be taken over, and how investors might be encouraged to move here if provided with sufficient tax breaks. The Minister of Industry tells me that if the military would assist with clearing up the site, it would be possible to establish 50 small enterprises, employing perhaps 20 people each, within the first year. The President wants everything done more quickly.

When I first heard Chávez mention the ‘Robinsonian system’, I thought that perhaps he was referring to the work of the late Joan Robinson, the Cambridge economist with whose work Latin American intellectuals were certainly familiar in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, inevitably, I thought of Defoe’s fictional hero, who lived for nearly thirty years on an uninhabited island near the delta of the Orinoco. That turned out to be nearer the mark. Chávez’s political and economic thinking derives in part, and by a circuitous route, from the story of Robinson Crusoe, and the impact it made on Simón Rodríguez, a young Caracas schoolteacher in the 1790s. Rodríguez was so struck by the story that he changed his name to Samuel Robinson. Chávez’s aim ‘to colonise the country with its own people’ comes directly from ‘Robinson’.

The life and works of Robinson/Rodríguez are almost unknown outside Latin America, and his writings have never been translated into English. Yet between 1824 and 1852, he lived and worked in Colombia and Bolivia, in Peru and Chile, and in Ecuador. He was a man with unorthodox ideas about education and commerce. He also had a passionate belief, unpopular at the time, in the need to integrate the indigenous peoples of Latin America, and the black slaves brought from outside, into the societies of the future independent states.

Rodríguez was born in Caracas in October 1769, and some time in his twenties was put in charge of the town council’s primary school, where he taught Bolívar. He ran into trouble with the city fathers, after publishing a report suggesting that the school should accept the children of blacks and pardos as well as those of wealthy whites. Dismissed from his post, he became involved in the independence movement of 1797: there was a revolt, it was crushed, and he was forced into exile He sailed across the Caribbean to Jamaica, where he learned English. He thought of his new home as ‘the island of Robinson Crusoe’, and anxious to shake off his Spanish heritage, he kept the pseudonym ‘Samuel Robinson’ for the quarter of a century that he remained outside die continent.

‘Robinson’ and Bolívar met up in Napoleon’s Paris in 1804, and travelled together to Italy. Years later, when fighting in Peru, Bolívar wrote of his feelings for ‘Robinson’: ‘I love this man madly. He was my teacher and my travelling companion; he is a genius. He has an extraordinary wit, and a talent for learning and criticism ... He is a teacher who instructs through entertaining, and a writer who instructs through example. He means everything to me.’

When Bolívar returned to Caracas, ‘Robinson’ remained behind. ‘I stayed in Europe for more than twenty years,’ he wrote much later. ‘I worked in a laboratory as an industrial chemist; I joined a number of secret societies of a socialist nature ... I studied a little literature, I learnt a few languages, and I taught in a primary school in a small village in Russia.’ In 1824, aged 54, he sailed back across the Atlantic. He landed at the Colombian port of Cartagena, and changed his name back to Simón Rodríguez. Receiving news from Bolívar, then engaged in the liberation of Peru, he hurried down to Lima. The two old friends were reunited shortly after the battle at Ayacucho in the Andes that settled the fate of the Spanish empire in Latin America.

Rodríguez’s European experience had convinced him that America would have to try to do things differently. In one of his first books, published in 1828, he wrote about the need for difference, a passage often quoted by Chávez: ‘Spanish America is an original construct. Its institutions and its government must be original as well, and so, too, must be the methods used to construct them. O inventamos o erramos’ – ‘either we invent, or we make mistakes.’

In April 1825, Rodríguez joined Bolívar on an expedition across the Andes into the newly-named country of Bolivia. In Chuquisaca, now the Bolivian city of Sucre, Rodríguez was soon at work establishing a technical school for local children, Indians as well as whites. Years later, he outlined the far-sighted plans he had tried to implement in Bolivia: ‘My project at that time was a scheme designed to colonise America with its own inhabitants. I wanted to avoid what I feared might eventually happen one day, that’s to say, the sudden invasion of European immigrants with more knowledge than our own people; this would result in them being enslaved once again, and subjected to a worse tyranny than that of the old Spanish system. I wanted to rehabilitate the indigenous race and to prevent it from being entirely exterminated.’

The conservative citizens of Chuquisaca rejected his schemes out of hand. Soon, some of his worst fears were realised. The country’s old landowning settler class remained in place and summoned fresh immigrants from Europe. These took their turn at slaughtering and destroying the indigenous peoples, notably during the rubber boom at the end of the 19th century. Even in Venezuela, successive governments continued until the middle of the 20th century to encourage white immigration from Europe on a huge scale: more than a million Europeans arrived after the end of the Second World War. Chávez, for the first time in the history of Venezuela, has set out to give the indigenous inhabitants recognition.

Rodríguez was prepared for the hostility of the whites; he had met it thirty years before in Caracas. His school was closed down on the orders of the Bolivian President, Antonio José de Sucre y Alcalá, one of Bolívar’s generals from Venezuela. Sucre complained that Rodríguez was a hopeless organiser and had failed to keep his school within budget. This may have been true. But the real reason was that white parents did not want their children to be educated with Indians.

Rodríguez never met Bolívar again – there is some suggestion that the letters he wrote were kept from the eyes of the Liberator. For some years, he sustained himself, and the Bolivian cholita he had married, by establishing a candle factory in Ecuador. Later he worked in Chile, where he set up technical schools, teaching his pupils to read and write, and then showing them how to make bricks, tiles and candles. He is remembered in Chile for appearing naked in anatomy classes – there were no spare corpses. He eventually returned to Ecuador, to the small town of Latacunga, and died there in 1852. In the year before his death, he wrote that Latin Americans ‘must make a genuine economic revolution, and they must start in the rural areas: from there the revolution should move on to the industrial workshops. In this way, daily improvements will be observed that could never have been obtained if a start had been made in the cities.’

Last year Chávez gave orders for the writings of ‘Samuel Robinson’ to be reprinted, and after I had interviewed him at La Casona, he pressed the new two-volume edition into my hands.

Chávez is interested in education and in economic development, yet he is first and foremost a soldier. The other two historical figures that he has placed on a pedestal, Bolívar himself and Ezequiel Zamora, were unambiguously military men. ‘I understand the soul of the Army,’ Chávez told me, ‘and I am part of that soul.’ For many people outside Latin America, particularly since Pinochet overthrew Allende in 1973, it is almost impossible to think of a military leader without conjuring up the image of a junta in dark glasses presiding over an authoritarian and repressive regime. Few recall the handful of radical military rulers who have taken the side of the peasantry and pushed through radical reforms in the teeth of fierce opposition. Who now remembers that Allende recruited radical officers to serve in his Government?

Chávez knows well that many people, even inside Latin America, are often reticent about supporting a government with influential military participation. He tries to explain how shocked his generation were at the Chilean coup, and how impressed they were by the progressive military governments of Peru and Panama. ‘Chávez is not ashamed of his military antecedents,’ Rangel told me. That generation of officers was, he said, unusual. ‘They emerged in the period when the Venezuelan Army was coming out of the guerrilla struggle of the 1960s. During that time the Army – and all the armies of the region – had been “Pentagonised”. The US School of the Americas in Panama and the US military “advisers” and the “national security doctrine” all played an important role.’ Once the guerrilla phenomenon had disappeared, ‘the officers began to search for new motivations. They started to study in the universities, and made connections with civil society.’ As the economic and social situation in the country got worse, ‘the officers who were no longer cooped up in the ghetto of the barracks began to experience the social crisis at first hand.’

Encouraged by the political élite, a large section of the officer corps was involved in corruption. ‘This may have neutralised the top echelons,’ Rangel explained, ‘but it created great discontent further down, among officers who were studying and had contact with students.’

Chávez himself talked about the humiliation of the junior officers. ‘The lack of balance in the country affected the military. At one extreme were the gorilas; at the other extreme, the eunuchs. Over many years the Venezuelan military have been eunuchs: we were not allowed to speak, we had to look on in silence at the disaster being caused by corrupt and incompetent governments. Our senior officers were stealing, our troops were eating almost nothing, and we had to remain under tight discipline. But what kind of discipline was that? It was complicit with the disaster.’

Over the past year the military have been working on their own democratic social project, the Plan Bolívar 2000. The idea is to mobilise the spare capacity of the Armed Forces, to link up with local community groups and to restore the country’s increasingly derelict social infrastructure. Soldiers have been encouraged to make their barracks, their sports grounds, and their canteens available to local communities. They have also been diverted into repairing schools and roads. Chávez said last year that mobile field hospitals would be sent out into remote villages and slums ‘as if to a war zone’. The metaphor proved uncomfortably apt.

Chávez sees the military ‘incorporating themselves, little by little, into the political leadership of the country, but not into party politics’. If this is a strategy for the acculturation of the Armed Forces, it could equally be a blueprint for military rule – Chávez is bitterly hostile to the two political parties that have dominated the country for so many years. Indeed, he does not really like political parties at all – an antipathy he has acquired partly from the theorists of La Causa Radical, a grouping with an ideology similar to that of the German Greens. His own party, the Fifth Republic Movement, is a moribund affair, and the two principal parties that support him, the Movement for Socialism and the Fatherland for All (a split from La Causa Radical), are forever at odds.

Whatever the role of the military turns out to be, Chávez has issued a new prospectus for development in South America. His search for an alternative to the life of the shantytown is highly ambitious, for Venezuela is still a society of gangsters and looters. To turn these young amoral people living on their wits into dedicated pioneers will not be easy. Would you rather live in a shantytown overlooking the Caribbean which falls into the sea every twenty years or move to the distant shores of the Orinoco, filled with unpleasant insects and diseases – part of a hinterland that has never before supported a large population? Would you rather be in a Caracas slum, surrounded by friends and neighbours, with the possibility of selling oddments on the streets, or go somewhere in the country where a dependable government might provide you with a home, and eventually with land and work?

Radical figures in Latin America tend to come to a sticky end. Free elections have sometimes turned up winners who are too far to the left to be easily countenanced in Washington. So far the Americans, principally concerned with the outcome of the civil war in Colombia – and now with events in Ecuador – have still not decided how to respond to Chávez. The Venezuelan opposition knows exactly what it thinks, but it has been so battered by the collapse of the ancien régime, and is so definitively rejected and unloved, that it shows no signs of an early recovery and has confined its activities to vindictive articles in the overwhelmingly hostile press.

What, then, are we to make of Chávez? Is he a democrat, or a dictator in the making? Is he a throwback, advocating the failed economic and political recipes of the last century? Or does he represent a genuine alter-native to neo-liberalism? I doubt whether he will turn out to be a Mussolini. Nor is he the dangerous Bonaparte once so brilliantly evoked by Marx. Chávez will remain a man of the Left, a radical searching for new forms of politics, new structures of economic organisation, and different ways of pursuing international relations within Latin America, and between the two Americas.

Writers have always been susceptible to the charms of Latin America’s radical strong men, and I am no exception. Clearly Chávez has a Utopian vision, not uncommon in a continent from which Utopias are believed to spring, and it would be foolish not to imagine that his dreams will eventually be betrayed. Yet he has laid down the framework for a national revival capable, one day perhaps, of resisting the ‘colossus of the North’. On the other hand, many radical projects in Latin America have been left, like corpses on a gibbet, to twist in the wind. The proposals of Comandante Chávez deserve a better fate.