Confused in Venezuela

ChavezDVDWATCHING the vast and emotional crowds at the funeral of Hugo Chavez today reminded me of the last time I was in Venezuela – when the masses took to the streets for a very different reason.

It was April 2002 and I was heading for the Orinoco delta to write an eco-tourism feature for the Sunday Times, when the news broke that Chavez had been deposed in a coup after mass protests in Caracas.

It was a surreal and confusing experience following the turmoil on television from my cabin in the rainforest. On the face of it, the left-wing president seemed to have resigned following a bloody mass-protest at his attempts to impose party control over the state oil company. There had been deaths and injuries as gunmen on both sides opened fire, and it was hard to tell exactly what was going on.

I vividly remember watching emotive footage of housewives banging tin pans against the chainlink fence of the airport, as a distant plane took to the skies. “The jackal is fleeing!” they shouted – and I remember feeling a surge of emotion on their behalf. I asked my tour guides to help me get to the nearest city to compile a more detailed reaction piece for the Scotsman.

Those I had met in the tourist industry were almost as hostile to the president as the women banging saucepans – I had heard much about his interminable and often bizarre lectures on state television, and how his opposition to US capitalism was slowing down the economy.  Others claimed that he had deliberately armed his “Bolivarian Circles” – neighbourhood committees named after the South American liberator Simon Bolivar, which he had set up on the urging of Fidel Castro. Now these gangs were killing unarmed protestors, claimed his detractors.

But in Ciudad Bolivar, a city of nearly 300,000 on the Orinoco river, the poorer people I spoke to in workers’ cafes looked at me strangely when I asked them what they thought about the president fleeing the country. 

“Don’t believe everything you see on the television,” said the waitress, evidently embarrassed that I had fallen for propaganda. “Chavez has done more than anyone else for the poor of this country. All this trouble was provoked by the rich. They wanted Chavez out, and they stage managed the demonstration.”

The Bolivarian Circles were not armed cells, she insisted. “They are just like unions for the poorest people – the only opportunity they ever had for better conditions,” she said gloomily. “Now we’ve got the capitalists in power again it’s only a matter of time before they sell the whole country.”

But the capitalists weren’t in power for long. After two days the new regime disintegrated and the coup was reversed by loyal palace guards, with Chavez back in power on a wave of popular support. It seemed the women banging pans at the airport perimeter fence were either mistaken, or deliberately planted there for effect. The president hadn’t fled at all – he hadn’t even resigned. He’d been held in the palace the whole time, as was later revealed by an Irish camera crew who happened to have been making a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Their resulting film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is a sobering lesson in how powerful interests manipulate public opinion using the media – and a reminder to me (if one were needed) never to swallow uncritically what I see on the television. It’s recommended viewing for any wanting to pass judgement on this most flamboyant and controversial of presidents. For his legacy is not a simple one – like most of us, he was neither a saviour or a brutal dictator, but something in between.

On the one hand, it’s hard to condone his ruthless centralising of power, his shutting down of private TV stations, his requisitioning of land and businesses, and his often questionable choice of political allies, from Saddam Hussein to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “He believed that his enemy’s enemy was his friend,” tweeted socialist song-writer Billy Bragg on hearing of his death. “And that is never a pretty sight, whoever does it.”

He tampered with the constitution in an attempt to extend his term of office and Human Rights Watch has criticised his “concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda.”

And there’s no doubt that he liked to whip up divisions rather than heal them, constantly casting neoliberal countries as enemies (witness the Guardian’s Venezuela correspondent Rory Carroll being publicly shamed by the president on his TV show on the beach) – and sanctioning the seizing of domestic property and land by the poor from the rich. The transition to his Bolivarian Revolution was never going to be easy, he said, whenever anyone questioned these methods.

He believed he was at war with a capitalist system as ruthlessly hellbent on his destruction as he was on delivering an alternative. And he was probably right. Ken Livingstone was on Radio 4 yesterday airing well-known conspiracy theories that the attempted coup I semi-witnessed in 2002 was backed by the USA, who sent assassins to get rid of Chavez. I would be quicker to dismiss such talk as nonsense if I hadn’t spent so much time in Chile, where the US bankrolled the assassination of the democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende. It’s a comparison that evidently occurred to Chavez himself. “Like Allende, we’re pacifists and democrats,” he once said. “Unlike Allende, we’re armed.”

Whatever you make of his bombastic style, he did submit, more or less, to the democratic process, which delivered 56 per cent of the vote in 1998 and 60 per cent in 2000. At the last election in October 2012, former US president Jimmy Carter declared that, “of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” Chavez won 54.4 per cent of that vote. The truth is that the ordinary people in Venezuela’s sprawling barrios loved him because he was visibly on their side. 

As Owen Jones of the Independent pointed out yesterday, thanks to money funnelled from the country’s vast oil wealth, poverty has fallen from nearly half to 27.8 per cent, while absolute poverty has been more than halved. Six million children receive free meals a day; near-universal free health care has been established; and education spending has doubled as a proportion of GDP. A housing programme launched in 2011 built over 350,000 homes, bringing hundreds of thousands of families out of sub-standard housing in the barrios. “Some of his smug foreign critics suggest Chavez effectively bought the votes of the poor,” says Jones. “As though winning elections by delivering social justice is somehow bribery.” 

Can you think of a better use for oil money than poverty reduction? I can’t. 

Whatever history decides, Chavez leaves a changed political landscape that includes a formidable block of Latin American countries – including Ecuador and Bolivia – now offering a viable alternative to neo-liberalism. Unlike Cuba, they avoid the tainted  rhetoric of communism in favour of something much more threatening to the dogma of the unfettered market: social justice.

Chavez may have been a man with many flaws, but ultimately I think he did a great service to a region of the world I know and love. Because of him, whole tracts of this continent are edging slightly closer to the upside down kingdom of Jesus, or the dream envisioned by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, where human dignity is valued over profit.

It’s always possible I’m being naive, of course – as I was when I first saw those emotive images on TV in 2002. But all the same, something in me leaps with hope when I hear the poor feeling valued for once.

This is an expanded version of an article which appeared in the Church Times on 8th March 2013

Posted on: 08 Mar 2013 in Features, General, Journalism, News
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