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Hugo Chavez and His Bolivarian Revolution

A veteran Latin America correspondent on the past, present, and possible future of Venezuela's president.

| Tue Oct. 4, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

MJ: Chavez remains popular in Venezuela. How is he viewed in Latin America more broadly?

RG: Yes, I think it's changed significantly in the years he's been in power. To begin with they didn't really know what to make of him, and it took them quite a long time to figure out that he was a very serious and intelligent politician. I suppose, too, that after a while his capacity to survive in itself becomes impressive, and the fact that he has not only survived but continues to be high in the opinion polls, winning election after election, gives him added credibility in the rest of Latin America.

MJ: As you say, his resiliency has been extraordinary. How has he managed to survive—thrive, even?

RG: Well, two things are absolutely crucial. One is that he has the support of the great mass of the people, who are poor, and also black and Indian. There’s a really interesting racist element to politics in Venezuela, and in the rest of Latin America. So Chavez has this huge popularity among the poor, and he’s seen to be delivering. And even where he’s not delivering, they believe that he will. The other thing of course is that he has the absolutely solid backing of the armed forces. The coup in 2002 allowed him to fire 60 generals and to get rid of the entire upper reaches of the armed forces. So the people running the army today are absolutely unconditional supporters of Chavez. Not only that, he's extremely popular with the troops, because they come from the poor and forgotten parts of the population, and Chavez always makes huge efforts to make sure he talks not just to the generals but also to the troops.

MJ: Of course Chavez is a former soldier himself. To what extent does that explain who he is and where he comes from?

RG: I think it's very significant indeed. The Venezuelan military is unlike other militaries. They've often had relationships with the left. They are simply not the sort of generals with dark glasses that one associates with Chile and Argentina, say, and they tend to come not necessarily from the higher social strata, they often come from the provinces. It's been quite a democratic army. They also in the 1970s and 1980s started studying at the universities and colleges, and became somewhat integrated into civilian life.

You have to bear in mind, too, that entire political structure of Venezuela has collapsed, the old political parties have disappeared, evaporated, and Chavez hasn't really created much of a new organized political movement of his own. The bureaucracy is in the hands of the middle-class opposition, and it's very difficult to get any sort of reform through the existing government machine, so Chavez does rely on the military to get things done, as his own political party.

MJ: The military aside, lacking an organized political movement he seems to hold on in part through sheer force of personality. Is there a danger that when he withdraws from the scene, voluntarily or not, his reforms and achievements will go with him?

RG: I think that's a very legitimate question. Things are better from that point of view than they were four or five years ago. I think if Chavez had disappeared even two or three years ago, that would have been the end of that. I think now that things are becoming more organized, less chaotic, the regime looks stable, and people are beginning to join in on the grounds that this is going to last. For a long time members of the opposition said, we're going to get rid of Chavez tomorrow, and so they waited till tomorrow came. But when that didn't happen, I think a lot of people who weren't particularly keen on Chavez are now beginning to realize that this is the government they're going to have to deal with for the next ten years. And I think that if Chavez disappeared tomorrow, there are enough good, competent people, and that the system is now stable enough, and that it will continue. I think what is significant is that there has been a revolution, a collapse of the ancien regime, so it's impossible to imagine going back to the system that existed before.

MJ: Not least because Chavez has brought into politics a large portion of the population—the poor—that wasn't involved before.

RG: Yes, I think that may turn out to be Chavez's most significant achievement. In a way that's what made the old, elitist opposition unhappy -- this democratization of the country, bringing in this underclass, even a lumpen class, into the body politic. A lot of the programs, the projects he's developed—not just the health programs but the education programs, too—they're really aimed at the 16-25 age group, the young people who weren't getting into college or into training. He's making sure that a huge amount of money will be spent on this one generation to get them into education, into work, and essentially into politics, because they're the people who will ultimately decide the nature of the system.


MJ: Now, he's able to make this huge investment because Venezuela is flush with oil money. What happens if and when that flow of money slows?

RG: Well, I don't think the price of oil is going to come down in the foreseeable future, and anyway he is only trying to do this as a crash program for one generation. After that, Venezuelans will have to decide which direction to go in. But he will have a much larger group of motivated people than existed in the 20th century.

MJ: You talk about Chavez's "new politics of oil." What's been his innovation there?

RG: First of all came the discovery, in the 1980s, that simply nationalizing the oil industry didn't result in huge flows of money for development, for the simple reason that the people who took over the industry ran it the same way it had been run in the days of Shell and Exxon, when the money disappeared into speculation or into the hands of the directors. Chavez has completely altered the way the oil company is run, pointing out that the money ought to be invested in Venezuela.

MJ: It's never healthy for an economy to rely to heavily on one industry, as Venezuela does on oil. Is the Chavez government working to diversify the economy?

RG: Absolutely. A lot depends on this new generation of people emerging, and then the possibility of investing in other activities. Chavez has the old, sort of 19th century belief in trying to develop the infrastructure all over the country, to try to reverse the movement of people from the countryside to the cities. And I think his scheme is to try to revive local economies and make the countryside more of a pole of development so that people don't endlessly drift into the cities, which is of course the bane of the whole of Latin America, not just Venezuela.

MJ: So, Chavez came into office promising radical reform—a Bolivarian revolution. Has he delivered?

RG: I think the jury is still out on the entire project. It's extremely open-ended as to where it's going to go, and I'm sure it's going to change and develop in time. Chavez is a very pragmatic leader who's moving forward gradually on a number of fronts but doesn't have any kind of blueprint for the eventual organization of society in Venezuela. For example, on two or three cases they've taken over factories that have collapsed and the workers have demanded that they should be taken over. I don't think that's the model, but it's happening. So I think there'll be a sort of pluralism of different projects, some cooperative, some state-owned, some privately owned. That's more or less what's happening at the moment and I expect that to continue. I think that because they depend so much on oil and it takes time to develop alternative economic activities it remains to be seen how all that will work.

MJ: Have the poor and historically disenfranchised seen real gains under Chavez?

RG: They've seen a large amount in terms of health and education in the shanty towns. That is very visible, and it's extraordinary. And the ones who haven't got it yet know about it and they're waiting for it and agitating for it to arrive. So, for example, I went to a shanty town outside Caracas next two or three months ago and nothing had happened, and they were extremely anxious for it to happen. They were sending protest demonstrations to the local mayor asking, when are the Cuban doctors going to come, and when is the education scheme going to reach our village. They are very well aware that improvements are in the offing and that they're going to come, though they obviously haven't got everywhere yet. I think the employment program is still in its infancy; getting people into jobs—that still has a long way to go.

MJ: The standard US line on Chavez is that his instincts are essentially autocratic. What do you make of that?

RG: I think it's entirely invented. It's true that he is a military figure who expects his orders to be obeyed. The two items that are endlessly picked on by the opposition are [his reforms of] the media and the judiciary. The judiciary was an unbelievable mess under the ancien regime. It has been reformed, they have managed to get control of it, and I think you'd expect any government to do that if it's building on the ruins of the past. You're not going to get a situation where the corrupt judges of the past have an influence over the system. You can call it raison d'etat if you like, but it seems to me to be a perfectly understandable measure for the government to take. I seem to remember that Franklin D. Roosevelt did something similar in the 1930s.

The complaint about the media law is a completely ridiculous red herring. All they've done is introduce some legislation that's probably less repressive than what we have in Western Europe. It's really the modern way of introducing a certain amount of regulation into television in a world that had hitherto been totally unbridled. And indeed anyone knows who's been there the media are having a field day and are about 80 percent anti-Chavez. So there isn't much to complain about there.

MJ: If Chavez's revolution succeeds, what do you think Venezuela look like ten years from now?

RG: I think Venezuela will be a model for the rest of Latin America—a society that's come to terms with its black and indigenous poverty-stricken populations, and where those populations participate fully in the democratic process. Because it's a new generation it's a little open-ended as to what will happen, but Chavez recognizes that. He says "Let the people decide," and I think he means it.

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