BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER
Almost as soon as a collapsing bridge forced the government of President Hugo Chávez Frías to shut down the only highway linking Venezuela's main airport and capital city in January, the recriminations began. Chávez's opponents accused him of wasting the country's oil bonanza on politically driven projects abroad while neglecting infrastructure at home. His supporters, in turn, charged the traditional elite that governed before him with squandering resources and ignoring fundamental needs for decades. In fact, both sets of charges were nearly identical. And both were right. Venezuela's leaders, Chávez as well as his predecessors, have long been guilty of misplaced priorities. As with so many things today in Latin America's most politically polarized society, they all share the responsibility for failing to maintain what is arguably the most important stretch of road in Venezuela.
Just before Chávez took office in February 1999, Gabriel García Márquez accompanied him on a flight to Caracas from Havana, Cuba, where the Venezuelan president-elect had visited with Fidel Castro. "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men," the Colombian Nobel laureate later wrote. "One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot." Seven years later, these "two opposing men" live on in the minds of Chávez's supporters and opponents.
To his most ardent backers in Venezuela and among the international left, Chávez is a hero driven by humanitarian impulses to redress social injustice and inequality -- problems long neglected by a traditional political class intent on protecting its own position while denying the masses their rightful share of wealth and meaningful political participation. He is bravely fighting for Latin American solidarity and standing up to the overbearing United States. With charisma and oil dollars, he is seizing an opportunity to correct the power and wealth imbalances that have long defined Venezuelan and hemispheric affairs.
To his opponents -- the embattled domestic opposition and many in Washington -- Chávez is a power-hungry dictator who disregards the rule of law and the democratic process. He is on a catastrophic course of extending state control over the economy, militarizing politics, eliminating dissent, cozying up to rogue regimes, and carrying out wrong-headed social programs that will set Venezuela back. He is an authoritarian whose vision and policies have no redeeming qualities and a formidable menace to his own people, his Latin American neighbors, and U.S. interests.
These caricatures have defined the poles of a debate that has obscured the reality of the Chávez phenomenon -- and thwarted the development of a sound response to him. Chávez's appeal cannot be explained without acknowledging the deep dissatisfaction with the existing political and economic order felt by much of the population in Venezuela and throughout much of the rest of Latin America, the world's most unequal region. Chávez's claims that he could remedy Venezuelans' legitimate grievances won him the support of many in the region.
But Chávez's policy ideas are mostly dubious. (Despite the record oil profits that are funding social spending, his initiatives have yielded only very modest gains.) His autocratic and megalomaniacal tendencies have undermined governance and the democratic process in Venezuela. Still, his seductive political project has offered a measure of hope to many, and his critics have proved chronically inept: every effort to challenge him, both domestically and internationally, has failed, and usually ended up making him stronger in the process. Chávez's opponents in Venezuela and abroad have spent much time and effort condemning the model he claims to represent, but far too little time and effort putting forward a model of their own. Until they do, Chávez will likely continue to have the upper hand.
Venezuela was ripe for major change when Chávez was elected president in 1998. For 40 years, an alliance of two parties -- Democratic Action and the Christian Democratic Party -- had dominated the political order. By the 1970s, both were rightly considered guilty of chronic corruption and mismanagement; the exclusionary political system they managed was wholly divorced from the central concerns of most Venezuelans. The fact of ample oil wealth (Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest producer) only deepened the population's rage.
During the 1980s and 1990s, no South American country deteriorated more than Venezuela; its GDP fell some 40 percent. In February 1992, with unrest already widespread, Chávez, a lieutenant colonel and former paratrooper, led a military coup against the government. Although the coup failed and Chávez spent the next two years in prison, his bold defiance catapulted him onto the national political stage and launched his career.
When Chávez entered politics six years later, his combative style and straight-talking populist charisma served him well in a country marked by pervasive discontent. His fierce indictment of the old political order -- and his promise of a "revolution" in honor of South America's liberator, Simon Bolívar -- held wide appeal among poor Venezuelans. Unlike the "out of touch" politicians, Chávez projected a sincere concern for those living in poverty. In Venezuela, that meant three-quarters of the population.
Chávez's political project has been an eclectic blend of populism, nationalism, militarism, and, most recently, socialism, combined with a "Bolivarian" emphasis on South American unity. Chávez sees himself as the embodiment of the popular will. "Participatory democracy," focused on empowering and mobilizing Venezuelans, is the essence of Chavismo. Taking advantage of his communication skills, Chávez, a consummate showman, speaks directly to the Venezuelan public through his Sunday television program, Aló Presidente, thereby cementing his bond with the masses.
Behind democratic trappings and a fig leaf of legitimacy, Chávez has concentrated power to an astonishing degree. Although he benefited considerably from the complete collapse of the old order, he has also proved to be an astute and skilled politician, despite being frequently dismissed as a mere buffoon. He has constructed his edifice of power through a succession of elections, including a 1999 referendum for a new constitution. That new "Bolivarian" constitution allowed consecutive reelection for the president and set up an electoral council that is a fourth branch of government.
The contours of Chávez's "illiberal" regime have become increasingly better defined over the past seven years. Virtually all key decisions are in the hands of the president. The rule of law is at best peripheral. The Electoral Council and the National Assembly have become mere appendages of the executive. In May 2004, Chávez took advantage of majority support in the National Assembly to have a measure passed that increased the number of Supreme Court justices from 20 to 32, thus allowing him to pack the court with handpicked political loyalists.
To be sure, dissent is permitted, and the largely privately owned media still frequently criticize Chávez. But instruments have been put in place to clamp down, if deemed necessary, on critical voices. According to the criminal code, it is now an offense to show disrespect for the president and other government authorities, punishable by up to 20 months in jail. A December 2004 Social Responsibility Law comes close to censorship by imposing "administrative restrictions" on radio and television broadcasts. The measure has been strongly condemned by various groups, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States (OAS). By raising the disturbing possibility of arbitrary enforcement, such restrictions have had a chilling effect on the press. There is also credible anecdotal evidence of the existence of lists of individuals' votes that have been used to deny Chávez's opponents jobs and services.
To rule, Chávez depends chiefly on the military, the institution he knows best and trusts most. Thanks to a specially tailored law, Chávez remains an active military officer, and more than one-third of the country's regional governments are in the hands of soldiers directly linked to Chávez. As the editor of the daily Tal Cual, Teodoro Petkoff, has noted, "For all practical purposes, this is a government of the armed forces." Moreover, the government has been organizing private unarmed militias and developing plans to mobilize up to two million reservists in the name of national defense. Citizen power, as reflected in such groups as government-sponsored neighborhood "Bolivarian Circles," helps undergird the regime (and represents the fifth branch of government, according to the 1999 constitution). Chávez has shown little desire to build a coherent party, relying instead on the heterogeneous political grouping he calls the Fifth Republic Movement.
Chávez's strategies have been particularly effective in the face of an opposition that has been consistently inept and is now weaker than ever. It has used various tactics -- a coup, a national strike, and a recall referendum -- in a quest to unseat Chávez but has never had a viable strategy, an alternative program, or effective leadership. In April 2002, a failed coup not only raised questions about the democratic credentials of the opposition; it also gave Chávez the perfect pretext to take full control of the armed forces, purging any dissidents. The strike at the end of 2002 enabled Chávez to establish control over the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). And the August 2004 recall referendum ended up enhancing his legitimacy when he won. Last December, the opposition's decision to boycott elections for the National Assembly left Chávez's coalition with control of all 167 seats. Looking ahead to the December 2006 presidential vote, it is hard to see how the opposition could regroup to mount a serious challenge. Although polls vary, they suggest Chávez is in a very strong political position, with popular support hovering around 50 percent, placing him far ahead of his closest challenger.
Chávez is frequently compared to Castro and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, as well as to Bolívar. The more apt historical precedent is Argentina's Juan Perón. Perón, too, was a military figure who attempted a coup and used his considerable oratorical skills to attack the political establishment and make rousing appeals to the downtrodden. Even Chávez's audacious decision to provide discounted home heating oil to poor families in the United States through the Venezuela subsidiary CITGO echoes the actions of the mythic Argentine first lady who supplied clothes for 600 needy American children in 1949. "Shrewd Evita Perón knew a good chance when she saw one," Time magazine noted, and the same is true of Chávez. And like Juan Perón, whose Peronism dominates Argentina to this day, Chávez is likely to succeed in building a social and political force -- Chavismo -- that will endure for some time.
The opposition's lack of success stems from its past unwillingness even to recognize -- let alone devise solutions to -- the deep social problems that Chávez has identified. Chávez's government, meanwhile, has undertaken important social programs and launched workers' cooperatives in urban slums. Plans are under way to set up "social production companies" that would extend the state sector and seek to distribute earnings among workers and community projects. Venezuela's oil wealth has made massive expenditures possible -- an estimated $20 billion in the past three years alone on programs to provide food, education, and medical care to underserved populations -- which have undeniably had some effect.
Available data of these measures' effect are mixed and not altogether reliable. According to the Venezuelan government's National Institute of Statistics, poverty rose from 43 to 54 percent during Chávez's first four years in office. The government blames this increase on the opposition's strikes and other efforts to destabilize the economy. A 2005 report of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean notes that poverty has started to decline in Venezuela, as the economy has registered impressive growth, fueled by consumption, in the past two years (18 percent in 2004, 9 percent in 2005). The government has also just changed its methodology for measuring poverty to reflect improvements in nonincome criteria such as access to health services and education, which, it argued, were not reflected in past figures. The dozen or so community-based misiones, a Chávez innovation, have resulted in better basic services in poor communities. Literacy programs have been afforded high priority and have made some progress.
Regardless of whether the conditions of Venezuela's poor have marginally improved or marginally worsened under Chávez, his "Bolivarian Revolution" is hardly a sustainable model for Venezuela's or the region's predicament. Its approach is fundamentally clientelistic, perpetuating dependence on state patronage rather than promoting broad-based development. Random land-reform measures and occasional confiscations of private property have had less of an economic than a political and symbolic rationale. Crime, a dominant concern for Venezuelans, has gotten worse.
The Chávez government's actual performance is all the more disappointing given the spectacular rise in oil prices. Although Chávez's support cannot be attributed solely to the price of oil -- which was at only $12 a barrel when he was first elected -- the increase to over $60 a barrel has given him an opportunity to spend the windfall on building a stronger and more diverse economic base. Ironically, this dependence on a single commodity is in striking continuity with previous governments -- yet another example of Venezuela's "oil curse" undermining sustainable policy.
Chávez regards Venezuela's state-owned enterprise PDVSA as the foundation of his grandiose political project. Although often criticized for not investing sufficiently in research and development, Chávez has been astute in dealing with private foreign investors. He has sought more favorable terms (such as higher taxes and royalties), confident that most companies would accede, however grudgingly. So far, with the exception of ExxonMobil on some contracts, he has been right.
WORLD ON A STRING
From the outset, it has been clear that Venezuela, with a population of 26 million, is too small a stage for Chávez's ambitions. Chávez has taken full advantage of a confluence of favorable factors -- lots of money, Latin America's political disarray, U.S. disengagement from the region, widespread hostility to the Bush administration -- to construct alliances throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond. He has skillfully managed to establish himself as a global and regional leader, using oil money and brash anti-Americanism to attempt to construct a counterweight to U.S. power.
Chávez's close friendship with Castro has been integral to this project. In exchange for Cuban teachers and doctors, Chávez furnishes the financially strapped island some 90,000 barrels of oil a day. Castro probably also provides Chávez with strategic advice, along with some military support and intelligence. More and more, Cuba and Venezuela are important referents for each other. When Venezuelans mention "the embassy," they now mean the Cuban, not the U.S., embassy in Caracas.
Chávez's aggressive oil diplomacy has also enhanced his influence. Last year, he inaugurated Petrocaribe, under which Venezuela will provide 198,000 barrels of oil a day to 13 Caribbean nations with "soft" financing for up to 40 percent of the bill. Chávez has also given high priority to the countries of the continent's southern cone, especially Argentina and Brazil, which are central to his plan to launch Petrosur, another regional energy initiative that he has pledged to largely bankroll. He has bought $2.8 billion in Argentine bonds and $25 million in Ecuadorian bonds and has substantially underwritten Telesur, a Latin American alternative to CNN.
At the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November 2005, Chávez joined with the summit's host, President Néstor Kirchner, and leaders from the other members of the Mercosur trading group (Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) to block the U.S.-led proposal to restart talks on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In its place, Chávez put forth the vaguely defined Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Chávez has also taken steps toward making Venezuela a member of Mercosur, with the aim of boosting the trading bloc's political role in hemispheric relations.
Of course, it is easy to overstate this influence. Most Latin American governments are hardly marching in lockstep with the Venezuelan president and are resisting joining a hostile, anti-U.S. bloc. As Chávez was vowing to "bury" the FTAA, Bush was traveling to Brasilia to meet with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who struck a more accommodating posture on hemispheric free trade. In the recent race for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank, even beneficiaries of Petrocaribe refused to back Chávez's candidate, who ended up withdrawing.
Chávez's supporters and opponents have both attributed to him considerable responsibility for the resurgence of Latin America's left -- most recently with the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia. There is no question about the affinity and mutual admiration among Morales, Chávez, and Castro; there are already signs of cooperation among them on social and economic issues. Although no hard evidence has yet come to light, critics often charge that Chávez has helped fund the rise of like-minded political figures, such as Morales. It is scarcely a secret that particular groups throughout the region -- and presidential candidates in Ecuador (Rafael Correa), Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega), and Peru (Ollanta Humala) -- regard Chávez with sympathy.
But even as Chávez can help shape a regional environment favorable to such populist politicians, it is inaccurate to blame the rise of left-wing candidates on his influence or his scheming. Those figures are products of particular circumstances, and they would be contenders without Chávez. Chávez's shrewd use of resources, calls for social justice, and fierce attacks on an unpopular U.S. administration have had such resonance in Latin America precisely because leaders such as Morales are responding to many of the same frustrations that gave rise to Chávez in Venezuela. Chávez's adherents include not only remnants of the region's unreconstructed left, but also many who are simply frustrated by failed economic and political models and are searching for answers. Accordingly, many Latin American leaders, such as Lula and Kirchner, indulge him and accept his attractive economic deals without really endorsing his agenda.
Even the conservative Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe -- Washington's staunchest South American ally -- has hardly had an unambiguously hostile relationship with Chávez. To be sure, Uribe has charged the Chávez government with failing to cooperate in pursuing Colombian insurgent groups, who use Venezuelan territory as a sanctuary, and Venezuela's initial neutrality in the Colombian armed conflict heightened suspicions about where Chávez's sympathies actually lie. But such strains predate Chávez, and the economic value of the Colombian-Venezuelan relationship ($3 billion in annual trade) has encouraged Chávez and Uribe to keep their distrust in check and deal with each other pragmatically. A confrontation, both leaders realize, is in neither country's interest. In early 2005, when the capture of the Colombian rebel leader Rodrigo Granda on Venezuela soil threatened to escalate into a full-blown crisis, Uribe called on Chávez's friend Castro to intervene and defuse tensions.
The recent politics of the OAS are a telling illustration of Chávez's true place in the region. As Washington has been trying to put more teeth in the existing Inter-American Democratic Charter, in an effort to sanction what it sees as Chávez's undemocratic actions, the Venezuelan government has been insisting that a new social charter emphasizing particular tenets associated with the Bolivarian Revolution should be adopted. While the U.S. and Venezuelan representatives have been at loggerheads, most OAS members side with neither. They do not see Chávez as a model, but they also harbor a deep dislike for the Bush administration. The U.S.-Venezuelan rift ends up being a diversion that thwarts cooperation on more urgent issues.
The primacy of petroleum has also given Chávez leverage beyond Latin America. He defended his visits with Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi on grounds of Venezuela's membership in OPEC. He has also worked to forge stronger ties with key countries such as India and China, in keeping with his declared intention to eventually direct Venezuelan oil away from its current principal market -- the United States. He has vowed to build a pipeline through Panama for trans-Pacific shipments, and PDVSA opened an office in Beijing last year.
Chávez has also used oil money to buy weapons, which he justifies by invoking the threat of a U.S. invasion. He has purchased combat helicopters and 100,000 AK-47s from Russia and has struck a deal with Spain for some $2 billion in military equipment. Although it is uncertain whether the deals that have been announced will actually materialize (Washington has tried to block arms purchases from Spain and Brazil), it is clear that such moves are part of Chávez's mission to increase his own power vis-à-vis the world's only superpower.
The most worrying manifestation of that mission has been Chávez's solidarity with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran. Venezuela's was one of only three no votes -- the others came from Cuba and Syria -- when the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to refer Iran's nuclear energy case to the UN Security Council in February. Chávez has defended Iran's right to develop nuclear energy and has declared that Iran and Venezuela are like "brothers who fight for a just world." The two countries are negotiating a variety of trade and economic agreements. Chávez, too, has talked about pursuing a nuclear energy program and has sought assistance from Argentina and Brazil to explore that possibility. An emerging alliance with Iran and the development of a nuclear program would raise the stakes in Washington's relations with Chávez.
Chávez's defiance of Washington has been a defining characteristic of his regime from the outset. His unrelenting critique of Venezuela's old order -- which he refers to as "the rancid oligarchy" -- has often focused on the support it received from U.S. administrations over the decades; he sees the U.S. government and the Venezuelan opposition as indistinguishable. His speeches are peppered with virulent anti-U.S. rhetoric, charging Washington with imperialist designs and systematic exploitation of the poor.
Unfortunately, the dominant attitude toward Chávez in Washington also seems stuck in a different era -- it represents a mindset reminiscent of the Cold War, when Latin America became a fierce battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ever since Chávez came to power, Washington has been at a loss as to how to deal with him. Its messages -- sometimes conciliatory, sometimes confrontational, usually contradictory -- have been largely reactive and show little in the way of strategic thinking. The initial approach was to focus less on what Chávez said than on what he did. But by leaving his inflammatory, often antidemocratic rhetoric unanswered, the United States missed an opportunity to make clear that it rejected what Chávez was espousing. After September 11, this hands-off approach became untenable. When Chávez publicly compared the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan to the unprovoked attacks on U.S. soil, the Bush administration, obviously incensed, struck back.
A turning point in the increasingly troubled U.S.-Venezuelan relationship came when the Bush administration endorsed the military coup against Chávez in April 2002. Although precisely what happened at the time remains unclear, Washington's rush to express approval for such a blatantly unconstitutional act undermined U.S. credibility on the democracy issue. It also distanced the Bush administration from many Latin American allies who rightfully expressed concern about Chávez's ouster (which proved temporary). Although Washington later shifted its position and Secretary of State Colin Powell made a pro-democracy speech at the OAS shortly thereafter, the damage had been done.
Since then, Chávez has invoked the incident to make his case that the United States is determined to bring about "regime change" in Venezuela. That argument has been made with even greater conviction -- and, for many Latin Americans, with no small measure of plausibility -- following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Chávez has predictably taken advantage of the hugely unpopular war to pound away even more at the Bush administration.
What has particularly alarmed U.S. officials is Chávez's alliance with Castro, Washington's nemesis for nearly half a century. With his resources, Chávez has succeeded in giving new life to the vision many considered long buried: to export "revolution" (in this case, Bolivarian Revolution) throughout Latin America. In a July 2005 speech at the Hudson Institute, entitled "The Return of an Aggressive Cuban Foreign Policy," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Pardo-Maurer warned that Castro is essentially working through Chávez, taking advantage of his resources to carry out a strategy that was thought thwarted four decades ago.
Yet even as political relations between Caracas and Washington have deteriorated, Venezuelan oil has continued to flow to the United States. So far, all of the apparent antipathy has not affected that key commercial relationship, which has forestalled a more serious clash between the two countries. The United States gets some 14 percent of its imported oil from Venezuela; more than 50 percent of Venezuela's oil exports go to the United States. At least for now, Chávez's efforts to diversify the markets for Venezuelan oil appear to be meant only to keep Washington on guard. But that could conceivably change. The United States cannot be complacent -- particularly because Chávez is so willing to subordinate economic considerations to political strategy, as his generous provision of oil to Cuba makes clear.
U.S. officials are clearly frustrated. In recent months, senior Bush administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have alternated between denouncing Chávez and ignoring him. At a House International Relations Committee hearing in February, Rice -- who, to her credit, has usually shown restraint when discussing Chávez -- made her harshest public condemnation of him to date. The Chávez government, she said, is one of the "biggest problems" in the Western Hemisphere, and its association with Cuba is "particularly dangerous." Rumsfeld's rhetoric has been more provocative and far from constructive. Responding to the argument that Chávez has electoral legitimacy, he said that Hitler, too, was elected. (Chávez shot back, "Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush.")
The Bush administration has succumbed to this war of words. Too often, officials have gone for Chávez's bait -- and ended up playing into his hands. U.S. efforts to apply pressure through sanctions -- using Venezuela's record on human trafficking as a pretext, for example -- have amounted to little more than pinpricks. The congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy has supported Venezuelan civic organizations opposed to Chávez, such as Súmate, but Chávez has adroitly used this as further proof that the Bush administration is intent on toppling his government. His troubling persecution of Súmate officials has sent a message to other groups about the consequences of accepting U.S. funding.
WHO IS AFRAID OF HUGO CHÁVEZ?
Last year, the Colombian magazine Semana, no friend of Chávez, named the Venezuelan president "man of the year" for having "modified the political map of the subcontinent, distributed his oil wealth in every direction, challenged the United States, and gone from being perceived as a tropical clown to the Latin American leader with the greatest political influence." And there is no sign that Chávez has any intention of slowing down. The 1999 constitution allows him to run for two consecutive six-year terms, but with his complete control of the National Assembly, a proposal to permit unlimited presidential reelection could well be adopted.
To be sure, Chávez's capacity to govern the country is not unlimited. A drop in oil prices, although unlikely in the near term, would prove highly problematic for his plans. There are credible reports of large-scale corruption within the regime and, as evidenced by infrastructure problems, major inefficiencies in the economy and the public sector. Shortages in basic commodities have begun to appear sporadically, the result of prolonged price controls. Incipient splits within Chávez's amorphous coalition could become more pronounced and create problems for governance. And although Chávez remains personally popular, polls indicate that the population is becoming increasingly dissatisfied over a variety of key issues.
But for now, Chávez's influence will probably continue. And countering that influence would require recognizing that it originates not only in Chávez's ability to shape Venezuela's and the region's agenda, but also in the failure of other governments to do so. His legitimate and well-expressed concern for social questions strikes a chord in Latin America, especially in view of the rather dismal condition of education and health care in many countries in the region. Against such a backdrop of unattended needs, Chávez's appeal is hardly a mystery.
Offsetting Chávez's influence would require confronting the acute social problems that Chávez has shed light on. His diagnosis of social ills may be on the mark, and his intentions may be sincere. But the recipe he is offering is little more than snake oil. Chávez has been unable to devise a sustainable model to address social problems effectively. Even if some of Venezuela's poorest citizens are better off today, Chávez's record has been disappointing given the opportunity presented by the oil windfall. More important, Chavismo comes with an unacceptably high cost.