latin american politics

A Decade In Chavez’s Venezuela

Hugo Chavez is hated by many, but Venezuela’s poor love him for what he has achieved, writes Antonio Castillo.
Jorge Ayala is agitated. But it’s not Sydney’s heat wave or the rude waiter that are getting to him right now — it’s Hugo Chavez, president of his native Venezuela. In common with most of 1500 or so Venezuelans living in Australia, Ayala has nothing good to say about Chavez. “If the fate of Venezuela is in the hands of an individual like him, what will result is a totalitarian dictatorship that should no longer exist anywhere in Latin America”, he grunts.On 2 February Hugo Chavez marked 10 years as president of Venezuela. Jorge Ayala, his wife Lucia and their two children have spent almost half of Chavez’s decade in Sydney. Both educated in the US, they are a well-off family who came to Australia with enough financial resources and skills to preserve the high living standards they enjoyed back home.To Chavez the Ayala family are los rubios, or the “blonde ones” — the white elite that Chavez scorns in his colourful and irreverent rhetoric. “I’m the friend of the poor and the enemy of the rich”, Chavez has declared.

And he has put Venezuela’s money where his mouth is. The poor and marginalised have been Chavez’s political capital and also the main beneficiaries of his Government. According to Venezuelan historian Margarita López Maya, over the last 10 years the Government has “incorporated the aspirations of the excluded and the poor and with the constitutional recognition of indigenous people and afro-descendents the concept of citizens has been expanded”. As she explains, “the ‘people’ as a political subject re-emerged with Chavez’s populist speech, after being lost in the past government’s neoliberal discourse and exclusionary public policies”.

Since he came to power in 1999 (but especially since 2003 when the oil industry was nationalised) Chavez has implemented vast programs of social, education and health improvement.

Over the last decade unemployment has dropped from 11.3 per cent to 7.8 per cent and poverty, an endemic problem in Latin America, has declined in Venezuela. Extreme poverty has fallen from 42 per cent in 1998 to 9.5 per cent. Major gains have also been achieved in education and literacy. The GDP spent on education has grown from 3.9 per cent in 1998 to 7 per cent. Higher education enrolment also doubled between 1999-2000 and 2007-2008.

In a region where literacy is still a major problem, in Venezuela today 90 per cent of adults are able to read and write. Access for millions of Venezuelans to health care has been substantially enhanced. According to the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the number of primary care physicians in the public sector is 12 times what it was in 1999.

In a decade Chavez has re-founded Venezuela. The country, which used to be just “Venezuela”, is now the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; it has a new flag and a new constitution. It also has what is being called “21st-century socialism” — which has not yet been clearly defined. What is clear though is that Chavez has privileged the strong role of the State (and also co-operatives) in opposition to the private sector.

Chavez also re-founded the ordinary operation of Venezuelan politics when he broke with the 40 years of what Jennifer McCoy, an American political scientist, calls “partyarchy”. For four decades the country had been ruled in line with the Punto Fijo — a corrupt and self-serving bipartisan pact between the two largest political parties in Venezuela, the centre-left Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) and the centre-right Partido Social Cristiano (Christian Social Party or COPEI). This “partyarchy” not only allowed the two to alternate in government but more importantly gave them access to massive oil revenues regardless of who was in power. Punto Fijo‘s inefficient management of its economy and high level of corruption condemned 80 per cent of its 23 million citizens to poverty.

Chavez is a leader whose rhetoric says a lot about his aspirations. “I don’t want to and I shouldn’t leave power. I have to be at the front of the steering wheel for at least 10 more years and then God will decide”, Chavez said in one of his recent speeches.

And it is his autocracy and authoritarianism that makes many people, including old sympathisers, worried. Teodoro Petkoff, a former left-wing guerrilla and one of Venezuela’s best-known intellectuals said, “Chavez didn’t come to the presidency on top of a military tank, rather with the people’s vote, but he has regressed into authoritarianism and autocracy.”

Chavez’s autocracy and authoritarianism have also put a big dent in his planned Pan-Latin American Bolivarian regional integration. While he has support from a small group of Latin American presidents, the leaders of the most influential countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Chile have shown very little enthusiasm with pan-Americanism led by Chavez. (Using a particularly Chilean manner of speech, a high-ranking official told over the phone from Santiago, “we would not even go to church with Chavez”.)

Chavez’s area of influence in Latin America has today shrunk to five countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras and Dominica; they form the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a mechanism of regional cooperation.

Away from the region, Chavez has forged close relationships with China and Russia and has become a business partner with Iran. And he has shown strong solidarity with the Palestinian cause, breaking diplomatic relationships with Israel following the Gaza invasion. Chavez has had several diplomatic incidents with the United States, but this has not altered the two countries’ mutual dependence: Venezuela’s exports need the US market, and the US needs Venezuela’s oil.

Despite all his social achievements, which are not minor, Chavez is a divisive leader. His political polarisation — as a government strategy — has profoundly divided the country and antagonised many, making him unable to expand his base of political support.

Venezuela is a country of pro-chavistas and anti-chavistas and this explains the convoluted social scenario that in the last 10 years has seen it all: general strikes, mass rallies and even a coup attempt in 2002. It seems, according to sociologist Tulio Hernández, that “only in the long term will it be possible to resolve the contradiction between the half of the population who support Chavez and the other half that systematically reject him”.

The challenges ahead for Chavez are daunting. Perhaps the most difficult has to do with the international economic crisis in the context of the falling price of oil. With prices falling from a peak of $147 last July to below $40 per barrel now, Chavez will have less revenue to maintain his social projects. He also has a major challenge in Venezuela’s 31 per cent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America. And while he is assuring the electorate that Venezuela has enough financial reserves in the tank to avoid a recession, figures show the opposite — the cost of living is increasing at the same pace as the oil price falls.

The level of violent crime is another problem. After El Salvador, Venezuela is the most dangerous country in Latin America, with 14,000 murders in 2008. He also has to resolve a food shortage that has put eggs, milk, oil and other basic staples on the list of rationed foods.

Amid all this, he is mounting a referendum this coming Sunday that seeks to remove the limits in the constitution that restrict the president and other elected officials to serving only two terms. He already lost a similar referendum in December 2007. It seems, though, that this time around he will pull it off. According to a study by the private firm Datanálisis, the “yes” option has 51.1 per cent support and the “no” 49 per cent.

Chavez is still a popular leader. His support is between 57 and 60 per cent and with a weak opposition, he seems to be the only option. Frederico Fuentes, a social researcher at the Miranda International Centre in Caracas, told that a more significant indicator of the future than Chavez’s popularity index is the “absolute conviction among Venezuelans that their lives have changed dramatically and they don’t want to go back to the old system”.

Posted in New Matilda


Is Latin America Really Turning Red?

The bunch of left-wing governments recently elected in Latin America is not a homogeneous bloc, says Antonio Castillo.
The impression that Latin America is heading decidedly to the left was reinforced on 15 August when former Catholic archbishop Fernando Lugo was sworn in as the new President of Paraguay.Leading the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a broad coalition of left parties and progressive social movements, Lugo’s victory ended six uninterrupted decades of government by the Partido Colorado. This right wing conglomerate counted among its leaders the infamous dictator Alfredo Stroessner who ruled Paraguay for 35 years.

The election of President Lugo is the most recent of several successive victories for the Latin American left. He comes to power with great hopes of rebuilding this impoverished nation: in a country of around 6 million people, 35 per cent of the population live in poverty.

These are the same hopes that have brought power to an unprecedented number of left-wing leaders in the region. The election of this 57-year-old former Catholic priest and exponent of Liberation Theology followed the victory last year of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. These three successive victories add to the existing left governments of socialist Michelle Bachelet in Chile, former Sandinista guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, Alvaro Colom in Guatemala and Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. Also significant is the 2006 victory of Peru’s Alan García, an exponent of the “moderate left”, who beat the “ultra left” of former army officer Ollanta Humala.

“Not since the 1970s has the world seen anything like it,” editorialised Thomas Catan in Times Online last year, giving the impression that Latin America was flirting once again with the radical socialist experiments of the 1970s. Not quite.

At best this new wave of left wing governments are pink rather than red and – with a few exceptions – most of this new generation of Latin American leaders are leaving old ideological postures behind in favour of far more practical approaches. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is a socialist who spent some time in Sydney as a political exile in the 1970s. She doesn’t like to characterise the newly elected Latin American governments as “left wing”, preferring instead to call them “progressive governments without family names”.

It is incorrect to suppose that the left leaning governments that have came to power in the last few years are politically unified and form a sort of homogeneous left wing anti-liberal anti-American bloc. Instead of one linear and uniform trend, the emerging political landscape in Latin America splits into two clearly discernible blocs.

Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Tavaré Vázques in Uruguay and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil are leaders of centre-left governments. Chilean political scientist Marta Lagos says they should not be called left but rather “social democrat”. They are less ideologically driven and far more concerned with the establishment of stable governments and economic growth. Alongside their genuine concern for social justice they have undertaken conservative economic policies. Brazil is a notable example of this. President Lula’s political power relies on left-wing oriented reforms but his economic program is conservative and his fiscal discipline is such that it has even been praised by the International Monetary Fund.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega form a second bloc described as the “radical left”, a grouping enlarged by the addition of Cuba. This bloc has indigenous nationalistic characteristics and evinces a profound antipathy towards the US. This second group is closer to the 1970s Latin American left to which the Times Online referred.

These four governments have pursued a strong anti-neoliberal economic agenda. “The neoliberal dark night was left behind,” said president Correa in his maiden speech. Chávez is the self-appointed leader of this bloc: his anti-Washington stand is widely known, and “21st century socialism” has become his mantra.

The election of progressive governments that began in 2000 is a response to the economic debacle caused by the right-wing governments that ruled the region for the past two decades. The shift to the left is also due to the new-found sense of national identity and economic independence from the United States that is being experienced in many of these countries.

Until the 1980s, the United States was Latin America’s major trade partner and the region was regarded as Washington’s “backyard”. Not any longer. China has become a major player in the region. It has already replaced the US as the second business partner of Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America. The European Union is now the first commercial partner of the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR or Southern Common Market) and trade ties with Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and India are being strengthened.

The challenges for newly elected left-wing governments like Lugo’s are immense. They have to be able to foster economic growth as they develop effective social justice policies and ensure a better distribution of wealth. Their key tasks are to defeat unemployment and poverty. The disastrous failure of the neo-liberal economic models of the last two decades brought about massive unemployment, a disgraceful gap between the haves and the have-nots, and massive poverty. Forty per cent of the population of Latin America lives in poverty and 16 per cent in abject poverty, according to José Luis Machinea, the head of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The other challenge for the new left in Latin America is the achievement of political stability. While the Latin American right – renowned for its historically anti-democratic tendencies – has been defeated in the ballot boxes; it has not entirely lost power. Far from it. Underpinned by unelected powerful poderes fácticos (de facto powers) like the financial sector, the military and the media, the right won’t hesitate to destabilise left-wing governments regarded as threats to its interests. The recent attempts of regional secession in Bolivia planed by the wealthy rural oligarchy of Santa Cruz, the ongoing campaign against Argentina’s Christina Fernández de Kirchner by powerful landowners and the 2002 failed coup orchestrated by the commercial media against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez are just a few examples.

Like other governments of the Latin American left, the new Paraguayan government represents real hope for social justice in the region. As Lugo prepares to tackle poverty and the economic legacy of decades of right-wing rule however, he will also have to face the extra challenge of consolidating his power and ensuring political stability.

Posted in New Matilda