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President Hugo Chavez Of Venezuela
Forging an independent foreign policy?
Venezuelas president Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez frequently makes public appearances in military fatigues and tells his audience that he is "dressed for battle." He adds that his words are ammunition and his targets are those adversaries who act at the behest of the discredited political parties of the establishment.
Chávez has scored a string of electoral victories that have left the formerly dominant parties disgraced and demoralized. First, he triumphed in the presidential elections in December 1998 with 56 percent of the vote, as opposed to the meager 9 percent of the 2 main establishment partiesthe social democratic Democratic Action (AD) and the social Christian Copei. Subsequently, in a referendum in April, 90 percent of the votes were cast in favor of Chávezs proposal for a Constituent Assembly. For Chávez, the Assemblys raison detre is nothing less than the thorough transformation of the nations political system.
Then, on July 25, Chávez trounced his opponents in the election for the Constituent Assembly. All but a handful of the candidates elected to the 131-seat Assembly belong to Chávezs coalition. The remaining few were endorsed by AD and Copei, whose candidatesincluding several of the parties national leadershipdeceptively called themselves "independents."
Following the inauguration of the Assembly, influential actors abroad have questioned its assumption of emergency powers. At issue is the Constituent Assemblys claim that it is hierarchically superior to all other public institutions and its decision to oversee Congress, the judicial system, and state governments. In an editorial on August 21, the New York Times labeled the Constituent Assemblys actions "Jacobin" and criticized it for "concentrating power in the presidency." The U.S. State Department, which had maintained a discrete silence regarding Chávez since his election, advised Venezuela to maintain "the separation of powers between the diverse branches of government."
Nevertheless, a glimpse at Chávezs past and his governments program dispels the notion that he is set on assuming dictatorial power and that his efforts to fortify the executive branch overrides social concerns. Most important, none of the members of the opposition has been locked behind bars or persecuted in any way and no restrictions have been placed on the media, despite its criticism of the government.
Chávez originally raised the banner of the Constituent Assembly as a vehicle for radical political change at the time of the abortive military coup he led in 1992. He again embraced it last year during the presidential campaign. Chávez lambasted the nations Constitution of 1961 for privileging political parties. Their representatives in Congress have powers ranging from the nomination of judges to approval of military promotions. Chávez reserves his sharpest attacks for AD and Copei, which for decades have been at the center of what he pejoratively calls "party-democracy" marked by clientelism, inefficiency, and corruption.
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In accordance with their goal of limiting the reach of political parties and promoting participatory democracy, the Chavistas elected to the Constituent Assembly have moved to turn the judicial system upside down and are expected to enact the popular election of judges. Coalition partner Patria Para Todos (PPT) issued a statement in September calling on the Assembly to create an "autonomous and decentralized" court system, adding that "the jails should be utilized only as a last resort and should cease being a depot of human beings to convert itself into centers of work and study."
Many Chavista delegates favor eliminating state legislatures and reducing the authority of governors in order to enhance that of a municipal government accessible to ordinary citizens.
By actively taking part in the campaign for the Constituent Assembly, Chávez flaunted Venezuelan law and tradition, which forbids the president from taking sides in elections so as to avoid utilization of the immense resources at his disposal. Chávez, however, must capitalize on his popularity if he is to carry through on his promise to overhaul the nations political system. The parties that back him, including his own Fifth Republic Party, fall short of the task. Not only do they lack prestigious leaders, but also they are divided among themselves. Chávezs movement began as a one-man show, and although some of its leaders have achieved a degree of national popularity, it is still completely dependent on its standard bearer.
The Why Of Chavezs Popularity
Chávez is a product of popular outrage and effervescence. Fifty years of relatively stable oil prices had provided the nation with a stable democracy, which contrasted with the military-run governments in the rest of the continent in the 1960s and 1970s. The sharp downturn in prices in the 1980s interrupted Venezuelas prosperity. Then on February 27, 1989 mass riots of slum dwellers broke out throughout the nation, leaving an estimated 2,000 dead. Venezuela would never be the same.
Santiago Martínez, who heads a major community organization in Caracas, told me: "After February 27, we tried to reconstruct what I call the social fabric by easing social tensions, but to no avail. Poor people consider the affluent communities enemy grounds. Any businessman who is successful is assumed to be corrupt, and that goes for politicians as well. The distrust is mutual. The middle class fears that the poor are about to invade their communities."
This class cleavage manifests itself in attitudes toward Chávez. The radical language of the president, who on several occasions has questioned the sanctity of private property, increasingly alienates middle class members. They view Chávez as indiscreet, long-winded, and uncouth. In contrast, the nations have-nots are as solidly behind him as at the time of his election and are especially taken by his frequent references to the plight of the poor.
Chávezs charisma is not hard to grasp. He represents different things to different people. He frequently speaks to the nation informally in TV appearances that go on for hours, in the style of FDRs fireside chats. He also has a weekly call-up radio program named "Hello, President." He sometimes shows up unexpectedly and virtually unaccompanied at hospitals and elsewhere in order to get a close-up view of the nations pressing problems. Chávez comes off as an ordinary Venezuelan whose childhood dream was to play baseball in the majors. On a trip to Asia in October, Chávez pitched prior to a game to Venezuelan slugger Roberto Petagine, who leads the Japanese major leagues in home runs. He performed a similar feat at Shea Stadium in New York earlier this year.
Chávez also proudly talks of his Indian extraction in a country where many are conscious of their African blood but forget that they are also mestizo.
Chávez embraces a homegrown style of nationalism underpinned by Venezuelan heroes. His discourse resembles Sandinismo, which also developed a national doctrine while breaking with imported models of Marxism-Leninism. Chávez berates historians for practically writing off the nations history between the death of Simón Bolívar in 1830 and the modern era, dismissing a whole century of political leaders as "caudillos," or strong-men. In a book of interviews with Chávez entitled The Commander Speaks, he states: "Caudillos may have been necessary for the incorporation of our people in historical struggles. I believe we have been sold an imported bourgeois democratic modelthat of the elimination of our leaders."
Among these "caudillo" leaders was Chávezs great-grandfather, known as "Maisanta." A life-long rebel, Maisanta participated in an uprising that left an ex-president dead, and in another which involved the execution of a notoriously ruthless governor. He was finally subdued in 1922 and spent his last seven years in prison.
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Like Maisanta, Chávez is a rebel at heart. As a junior officer, he dedicated ten years laying the groundwork for an unsuccessful coup he staged on February 4, 1992 against neoliberal president Carlos Andrés Pérez (who was impeached a year later on grounds of corruption). Unlike his great-grandfather, Chávez was released from jail after serving only two years and went on to form a makeshift party consisting of ex-military officers and leftists including "ultras." He has now rewarded some of these same followers positions in his cabinet and the party.
One of the candidates unexpectedly defeated in the elections for the Constituent Assembly was Carlos Andrés Pérez, Chávezs archrival. Pérez claims that the choice available to Venezuelans is between "liberty and dictatorship," while making clear who represents what. Pérez predicts that Chávez will convert the Assembly into a vehicle for personal rule.
If what Pérez and other opposition leaders say about Chávezs authoritarian tendencies is true, then his presidency fits the general pattern of excessively powerful executives characteristic of Latin American democracies in the 1990s. Perus Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, and, as in the case of Argentinas Carlos Menem, ruled for several years largely by decree. These and other presidents have often run roughshod over congress in order to impose neoliberal policies that they themselves had adamantly opposed when first running for office.
Chávez has also placed in doubt the legitimacy of the Congress, the parties of the establishment, and even the bureaucratically run labor movement, leading some to question his commitment to democracy. In addition, he has set aside his radical proposals on economic policy, such as a negotiated moratorium on the foreign debt and revision of contracts with foreign oil companies, and he no longer lashes out at the International Monetary Fund.
Nevertheless, Chávez is hardly moving in the direction of Menem and Fujimori, nor does he resemble their radical populist predecessors such as Juan Domingo Perón or Lázaro Cárdenas. In the first place, Chávez was a junior officer who conspired against the government for ten years and then led an armed uprising. In his informal style, his physical traits, and his lower middle class background he is more "one of the people" than were his populist counterparts.
Furthermore, his key slogan is popular participation, a far cry from the paternalist relationships promoted by populism. Indeed, his followers have a sense of optimism and efficacythat they are the major players in a process that promises to transform the nation more than any event since Independence.
Finally, given the conservative setting in Latin America in the 1990s, Chávezs movement is distinguished by its radical and confrontational thrust.
Chávezs critique of Venezuelas post-1958 democracy goes beyond repudiation of discredited politicians of the ilk of Carlos Andrés Pérez. He proposes a completely new political model for Venezuela of direct citizen participation. In the book The A, B, C of the Constituent Assembly, Chávez follower Fabian Chacón quotes Rousseau as saying "the system of representation contradicts the principle of popular sovereignty." Chacón put it this way to me: "The idea that people can intervene in politics at any given moment, as against having to wait four or five years at election time, is the difference between night and day." He went on to note that for the Chavistas the quintessence of "participatory democracy" is the proposal of a referendum allowing Venezuelans to vote politicians out of office in periods between elections.
One facet of the deepening of the nations democracy is the democratization of the nations main labor federation, the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV). Chavistas pressured the CTV into allowing the rank and file to directly elect the president and other members of its executive committee. These elections will make the CTV practically unique among major labor federations throughout the world. The CTV also gave in to the insistence by Chavistas that the elections be supervised by an outside, neutral body, thus minimizing possible fraud. Nevertheless, the CTV stopped short of acceding to another demand of Chavista labor leaders, namely the inclusion of unorganized workersincluding such self-employed ones as street vendorsin the list of voters.
Diverse groups such as police, members of the cultural community, ecological organizations, and even children participated in meetings to formulate proposals for the Constituent Assembly and, in some cases, launched their own candidates.
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The First Lady, Marisabel Rodríguez de Chávez, who has played an activist role on behalf of childrens rights in general, and street children in particular, was elected to the Constituent Assembly with the second largest vote. She proposes the creation of the figure of "The Defender of the Rights of Children" who would encourage children to come forward and denounce abuses. The tenacity of the First Ladys convictions and courage was demonstrated during the presidential campaign when she publicly stated that her child, Rosainés Chávez, was conceived out of wedlock.
Chávezs election has set off efforts to organize and mobilize other sectors of the population including the unemployed, land squatters, and even prisoners. Venezuelan jails are among the most dilapidated and dangerous in the world. President Chávez and several followers met with prisoners and convinced them to turn over weapons. Sarith Suriega, a congressperson I spoke to belonging to Chávezs Fifth Republic party, participated in the endeavor: "Prisoners handed over some of their weapons which they had concealed in the walls, and in return we promised to look into their grievances, not only regarding prison conditions but the injustices of their own sentences."
Another Chavista, Rear Admiral Luis Cabrera, who ran for governor and was one of the top rebel leaders in 1992, pointed out to me: "70 percent of our prisoners are awaiting sentences. These people are a potentially powerful force, and their tactics such as hunger strikes draw worldwide attention. We (the Fifth Republic party) received a majority of votes in all the nations penitentiaries in the December elections."
From a political viewpoint, Chávezs initiatives and his promises not to use force against those who protest have paid off, at least in the short run. A large part of the population is actively behind him and willing to take to the streets should circumstances require. In the long run, however, his militant rhetoric could backfire if expectations are not met.
Chávezs bias in favor of non-privileged sectors gets translated into certain policies, which hardly sits well with the IMF and national business groups. Although Chávez now accepts privatization, he adamantly opposes it in the area of health and education, and has put a hold on last years law eliminating the publicly run social security program. His government has also clamped down on private schools that fail to meet basic standards. Spokespeople for this sector have warned that the draft of the new constitution submitted to the constituent assembly in October points in the direction of the elimination of private education.
In July, he also unveiled a $900 million public works program to combat unemployment under the direction of military authorities. Representatives of the international business community criticized it for diverting money, derived from recent oil price increases, which should be used to put government finances in order. At the same time, Venezuelan business spokespeople attacked the plan for sidetracking the private sector.
In a march organized by the "Fifth Republic" and PPT parties on September 2 in Caracas, the parties worker contingents called for the restoration of the system of severance payment, calculated on the basis of the employees last salary, which the previous pro-neoliberal government had scrapped. The constitutional draft submitted to the Constituent Assembly in October restores the old system (although a last minute change of wording leaves the article somewhat ambiguous).
Another key element in Chávezs political strategy is the armed forces, which have been incorporated into the nations life in the form of programs of civilian-military cooperation and appointment of officers to top government positions. The presidents proposal for granting military personnel the right to vote, which leftists have been pushing for since the 1970s, was brought to the floor of the Constituent Assembly in October. Chávez can count on the armed forces as an ally, particularly crucial should political tensions reach a threshold conducive to military intervention.
An Independent Foreign Policy
Chávezs independent and audacious foreign policy also represents a radical break with previous Administrations. At the same time, it thrusts Venezuela into a leadership position among Latin American nations increasingly concerned with new forms of U.S. intervention.
This role of protagonist was demonstrated at the 29th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) held in Guatemala in June 1999. At the meeting, Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel pointed to possible corruption among narcotics officials in the United States, at the same time that he called for elimination of Washingtons annual "certification" of Latin American nations according to their record in combating the drug trade. Rangel, a three-time socialist candidate for president, posed the question "how does the country which figures as the principle market for narcotics get off certifying the efforts of other nations in this area?"
At the OAS general assembly, Rangel led the resistance to a resolution sponsored by U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering which would have created mechanisms to impede the slippage of democratically elected governments toward dictatorship. In an interview, Rangel told me, "The U.S. motion was vague and rested on hypothetical situations. If it had prospered, it would have served as a pretext for intervention."
In the interview, Rangel pointed to the turnabout in the attitude of the U.S. embassy in Caracas, which, during the presidential campaign, had denied Chávez a visa due to his conspiratorial past. "The State Department has shown great caution toward Chávez because of what I call the "Cuba Syndrome": the fear that U.S. inflexibility will push Chávez to the extreme left, as it did Castro."
Rangel does not deny the possibility that Chávezs independent foreign policy could put a damper on investments from abroad, but notes, "With the end of the Cold War, foreign investors have paid less attention to ideology and geopolitics. They consider Chávezs commitment to revamp the notoriously corrupt and inefficient judicial system far more significant than any abstract formulation."
More recently, Washingtons apparent easygoingness has been transformed into a more critical posture. Undoubtedly, one reason for this change in attitude is the realization that the political revolution Chavez is leading inevitably spills over to the economic sphere, in the process undermining U.S. economic interests.
Of overriding importance is the key role Chavez has begun to play in OPEC. In recent years, Venezuela was notorious for scabbing on OPEC by increasing oil exports. The Chávez governments announcement early this year that it would not attempt to recover the portion of the U.S. market previously lost to Saudia Arabia signaled a new policy of complying with Venezuelas production quotas. In March of next year, Chávez hopes to host OPECs second summit of heads of states (the first was held in 1975) in which non-OPEC oil exporters will also participate. There Chávez is expected to push for the proposal for OPEC to reassume the role abandoned two decades ago of setting prices in the form of establishing a maximum-minimum range between which prices will be allowed to oscillate.
In less than one year in office, Chávez has diverged from the U.S. on a wide range of issues. What he said in China on the last day of a visit in October was more than just empty rhetoric: "We have begun to put into practice an autonomous foreign policy independent of any center of power, and in this we resemble China." Chávez went on to tell the Chinese that his end vision was nothing less than a "multi-polar world."
When Chávez exhorted fellow rebels to lay down their arms after intense fighting on February 4, 1992, he declared, "Unfortunately, the objectives we formulated have not been achieved for now." The "for now" phrase has since become legendary in Venezuela. It serves as a reminder that Chávez is, above all, a strategist with a keen sense of timing. Indeed, Chávez makes this point to his followers. At a rally announcing Caracas eight candidates for the Constituent Assembly in June, Chávez told supporters that his movement has "cards up our sleeves" and cited the proverb "battle that is announced, doesnt kill soldiers."
Until now the president has carefully limited his radical objectives to the nations political system. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Chavez and many of his followers have an underlying socio-economic vision. Many of his leading supporters have over an extended period of time called for reexamination of the foreign debt and defended state control of strategic sectors of the economy. If Chávez is successful in consolidating power and drafting a constitution, which transforms political institutions, he may well switch over to a second track with the aim of overcoming economic dependence. For now, Chávez is concentrating his fire on corrupt and traditional-minded politicians, while defending national sovereignty in the form of an independent foreign policy. Z
Steve Ellner is the author of scores of articles on Venezuelan politics and history and is co-editor of The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Westview). He has taught economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977.