Behind the Cult of Chavez

(International Relations and Security Network, 19/01/2006)


I boarded a plane in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a long flight to Caracas, Venezuela. The plane was packed with Venezuelans. Some of them, judging from their dress, manner of speech, and number of electronic gadgets, had traveled to Argentina as part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's security detail for the Mar del Plata Summit. The rest, farmers in shabby clothes with worn, wrinkled hands, had been sent to fill the stands with Venezuelan blood, hot enough to shout in favor of their leader.


The elderly lady sitting next to me said Venezuelan state agents had recruited her from her small family farm just hours before takeoff. She was to attend the summit as a Chavez fan, watching her leader stand side by side with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and then-Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales to denounce US foreign policy in the region and promote Chavez's region-wide call for socialism.


She and her husband referred to Chavez endearingly as "Huguito", or "little Hugo", and said state agents had instructed them as to when and how to cheer for "Huguito" in Argentina.


Observers have long talked about Chavez's cult of personality, but it was the first time I had seen it first hand, and in the genuine, cheerful faces of these small-time farmers.


Chavez, who has served as Venezuela's president for nearly a decade, faces elections in December 2006, and all indications are that he will secure another six years in power. For all intents and purposes, he is the president, the government, and all but an autocrat.


For six hours, the elderly couple talked about their beloved leader, who would one day deliver them from misery.


"Chavez represents the typical Venezuelan," the couple explained. "He grew up in the county in a house with a dirt floor. Raised by his grandmother, Huguito was able to get into the military academy because he was an exceptional baseball player, not because he had money."


Most Venezuelans are poor like Chavez was before he became president. This is the part of Chavez's personality that the Venezuelan government promotes, and it is why so many Venezuelans love him.

Chavez has been harshly criticized by large parts of Venezuela's middle and upper classes referred to as the "opposition". He has been accused of electoral fraud, human rights violations, and political repression. He has survived a brief 2002 coup and a failed 2004 recall referendum. The poorer classes tend to view him as a socialist liberator, while the middle and upper classes tend to view him as an authoritarian demagogue. Regardless of the labels, Chavez is one of Latin America's most complex and controversial figures.


From Mexico to Argentina, poor Latin Americans appreciate his rhetoric, his charisma, and talk of plans for a better future. He makes promises and keeps them. Within Venezuela, Chavez has setup medical clinics for the poor. Located in the shantytowns that surround Caracas, Cuban doctors run the clinics; service is free of charge. State-run markets, where the prices for basic food staples are controlled and very low, are popular with Chavez's supporters. And his talk of land appropriation, a very difficult promise to keep, has moved forward, giving poor, landless Venezuelans hope that one day, they will have their own land.


Chavez is the keeper of the faith. He has spearheaded a movement in Venezuela and abroad, that, more than any other substantial outcome, has delivered hope to millions of impoverished Latinos.


At the airport outside of Caracas, one is abruptly introduced to the loud, badgering, and careening nature of Venezuelan culture. But amid the constant motion and liveliness, and despite the faith in Chavez, a growing sense of doom-and-gloom seems to have descended upon Caracas.


Having lived in major cities in Argentina and Brazil, I have grown accustomed to the red bricks and corrugated tin roofs of South America's slums. But the shantytowns in Caracas were something different and more depressing. The sheer mass of slums and the length to which they spread forth from the hills surrounding Caracas, down the slopes, all the way to the coast, was depressingly impressive.


These shacks seem to cling to the side of the hill with little more than sheer will and some luck. Their inhabitants represent the mass of people who largely support Chavez. They are the first to praise their leader for the reduced prices of meat, chicken, bread, and eggs, and free medical care. Their children fill Chavez's rank and file of loyal soldiers.


They love "Huguito", placing all their hope in one very charismatic man who seems to have all the answers. Yet their votes are all that remain of Venezuelan democracy, which, with each election cycle, is chipped away at just enough to keep alarmists on their toes and pragmatists from worrying.


Talking to some of these Chavez supporters, I was surprised to learn that their allegiance was not as solid as it would seem. Many here love that he claims to represent Venezuela's poor. But they are quick to add that it seems that only those who live in the cities - and a limited number of pockets of rural poverty - receive attention from the state. They are also quick to mention that the Cuban doctors are not what Chavez says they are. More than one Chavez supporter told me that the doctors in the Caracas slums were little more than medical students, trained to the level of a nurse.


Later on in my journey through Caracas, I met with representatives of the "middle class" who do not support Chavez.


I met with a former vice minister in the Venezuelan Energy Ministry at a downtown café, just far enough from the hustling street to make conversation without shouting. Sitting in a far corner of the air conditioned café, he ordered both of us round after round of coffee and explained in fast-paced Spanish the realities of living among the opposition.


The former vice minister worked in the nuclear studies section of Venezuela's Energy Ministry and is now a professor with the Central University in Caracas. We spoke only a little about Chavez's nuclear ambitions before falling into a topic that began with what many in Caracas simply refer to as "the list".


Chavez's nuclear ambitions are more talk than reality, he said, adding that there was really nothing to talk about because Venezuela did not have the scientific brain trust to make it happen.


"The poor bastards have all left," he said. "Why? Because they were finished with working for the Chavez government, and the few who remained signed the list."


The list is a record of signatures made by those Venezuelans who opposed Chavez's presidency in late 2003. At the time, Chavez's political opposition had enough momentum to attract millions of signatures needed to call a nation-wide referendum. Since the list was delivered to the National Electoral Council, those who signed it became persona non grata for the Chavez administration. And it was soon after the referendum vote in August 2004 that strange things started happening.


"Chavez took that referendum very personally," the nuclear scientist said. "Everyone on that list is an enemy to Chavez and an enemy to the Venezuelan state in his eyes."


Rumors are that those who signed the list became part of a register that represents the core of Chavez's opposition.


Over time, members of that register noticed their lives becoming more difficult. Business licenses were not renewed, applications for passports and visas were "lost", strange bills for unknown taxes appeared in the mail.


As I listened to the stories about this lawyer, and that merchant, the daughter of the cousin of some friend, and her boyfriend's father, I realized that many of these stories may not be true, or were partial truths or rumors. But the fact remained that the former government employee sitting before me clearly believed those stories, and his speech was so fraught with anxiety that he brought his fist down on the table, spilling his coffee on my notepad.


While he failed to completely convince me of the veracity of these stories, he did manage to convince me that he, along with thousands or perhaps even millions of Venezuelans, believed them to be true. And that is what really matters.


If millions of middle class Venezuelans believe that their government is actively trying to make life more difficult for them, then they also believe there is no social contact between civilian and state. If Venezuelans believe the government should be changed, they have the constitutional right to organize a referendum and recall vote. The man sitting before me was convinced that he and millions of others had been punished for exercising their rights as citizens of a democratic state.


"What worries me the most is the future state of Venezuela for our children. What Chavez is doing to me and my peers now will only last a little while. Chavez will only last a little while, but what he is doing to divide Venezuelans, to destroy our economy, and to undermine our belief in our government and democratic system will take decades, maybe longer, to correct," he said.


Returning to my hotel in the broad backseat of an old Chrysler, my taxi driver, an Italian who immigrated to Caracas over 40 years ago, complained about life under Chavez. When I asked about "the list", he exploded in anger. He had signed the list and was convinced that was why he was still waiting for a tax receipt that would allow him to circulate in Caracas as a legal taxi driver.


Before the referendum, it took about two months for his tax receipt to come in the mail. This time around, he had already been waiting six months for his 2004 receipt, and the last time he called to complain, he was told he had never paid his taxes and would have to pay in full again or risk losing his driver's license.


I asked him if he would vote in the upcoming elections. "Hell no, I'm a marked man in this town. There is no way my vote would be counted," he said.


"They know my name is on the list, so it doesn't matter who I try to vote for, they'll just tell me I'm not registered to vote when I arrive at the [voting] station."


By this time I was getting the feeling that abstention would become a big problem among the middle and upper classes.


The Venezuelan opposition is a relatively small group of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans who are divided and in need of direction. Compared to the very focused mass of Chavez supporters, the opposition is fragmented and more of a diaspora throughout the Western Hemisphere than a political force in Venezuela. Chavez supporters currently form a solid political base, and Chavez rewards them with cheap food, free medicine, and maybe a plot of land, for their support.


What Chavez does not preach about is the truth of his fragile economic situation. The Venezuelan economy shrunk in 2002 and 2003 by 8.9 per cent and 9.2 per cent, respectively. Current claims that the Venezuelan economy is growing may be true, but it's still recuperating from years of shrinkage. Roughly one-third of Venezuela's gross domestic product is from the sale of oil, some 80 per cent of Venezuela's exports. The day the price of oil falls, Chavez will have a very hard time keeping the largesse of his social programs afloat.


When the well of socialist security begins to dry up, this whole system that Chavez has created will come crumbling down and his support base will revolt. If that day comes, those who form the core of his support base will revolt first, not the middle class Venezuelans who speak out against the president in a disorganized manner.


The first to revolt will be the taxi drivers, the bus drivers, the waiters, mechanics, and others who live in all but impoverished conditions, but who still hold on to hope that Chavez will be their deliverer.


The minute they lose that hope, they will take to the streets with all the firebrand fervor they now use to support "Huguito".