In This Review

In the Shadow of the Liberator: The Impact of Hugo Chávez on Venezuela and Latin America
In the Shadow of the Liberator: The Impact of Hugo Chávez on Venezuela and Latin America
By Richard Gott
Verso, 2000, 160 pp.

Richard Gott has always been susceptible, he admits, to "the charms of Latin America's strongmen." This time he has fallen for comandante Hugo Chávez, the former army lieutenant colonel and two-time coup leader who was inaugurated as Venezuela's president in February 1999 with overwhelming public support. Chávez, as Gott sees him, is a radical revolutionary who will provide the "antibodies" to combat "globalization ... the disease of the new millennium."

This first major assessment of the new regime in Caracas is classic Gott: large chunks of on-the-spot reportage and selective history spiced with generous dollops of old-left rhetoric, folded into a tasty literary sandwich. His is a Manichean world where "the evil empire" is based in Washington, D.C. Gott's hero is Chávez, who follows in the tradition of the great Latin American radical nationalists: Juan Perón of Argentina, Juan Velasco of Peru, Omar Torríjos of Panama -- and, of course, the ever-resilient Fidel Castro.

Gott himself has been a fixture for over 30 years among the foreign interpreters of Latin America. A British journalist who worked at the University of Chile in the 1960s, he authored a major work on the region's guerrilla movements before following Che Guevara's disastrous Bolivian campaign. More recently, he completed a fine elegy for the hinterland of South America where the Jesuits once ruled. He was also for a time the literary editor at The Guardian in London until he had to resign following allegations that he had been too cozy with Soviet agents.

Gott is always an interesting, well-informed, and engaging writer. Washington would be wise to pay attention to this account, since Chávez's radical nationalism (so fondly described by Gott) is presumably raising eyebrows in Foggy Bottom and Langley. Hence the detailed exegesis of the comandante's antecedents, philosophy, and friendships takes on great importance, even if Gott himself is surprised that "the Americans have been unusually quiet about Chávez."

Chávez, according to Gott, is a pragmatic utopian, and his aim is to destroy the Washington-inspired, neo-liberal economic "fundamentalism" that has entrapped Latin America in a U.S.-dominated system of dependence. Within South America, he seeks to revive the old dream of Simón Bolívar, calling for a united Latin America based on a reunification of the five Bolivarian republics (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). To this end, Chávez has immersed himself in Venezuelan history, rediscovering heroes with revolutionary credentials and restoring Bolívar -- long criticized by Marxists -- to leftist respectability.

Gott is especially intrigued by Chávez's resurrection of Bolívar's long-forgotten teacher, Simón Rodríguez. This philosopher (who was so struck by the character of Robinson Crusoe that he renamed himself Samuel Robinson) argued for a rural-based economic revolution and the integration of indigenous peoples with the descendants of black slaves. Chávez is himself a man of mixed black and Indian ancestry and a llanero, an inlander from the plains of central Venezuela. Gott sees this espousal of "Robinsonian" philosophy as critical to understanding Chávez's policies toward Venezuela's poor and indigenous citizens -- such as his schemes to resettle the population in the interior, away from the slums of the big cities.

Chávez has surrounded himself with battle-honed leftist stalwarts and survivors of past guerrilla insurrections, many of whom also knew Gott in the 1960s. Among Chávez's inner circle is Ali Rodríguez Araque, his minister of energy and mines, a former guerrilla fighter in Falcón state in the 1960s, and a former activist in the left-wing Radical Cause party. There are also Jose Vicente Rangel, his foreign minister and a perennial presidential candidate of the left, and Luís Miquilena, the octogenarian former leader of the Caracas bus drivers who helped form Chávez's "Fifth Republic Movement" of civilians and soldiers, which played a key role in his presidential election. Miquilena, whom Gott admires for his "tough Leninist streak" and his attempts to "revive the tradition of socialist nationalism," became the chief political adviser to Chávez and then president of the Constituent Assembly in 1999.

Chávez's bold aspirations have already translated into significant policies. Despite the official Venezuelan commitment to the peace process in Colombia, Gott emphasizes that Chávez is on the side of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (better known by its Spanish acronym FARC), the major leftist guerrilla force in Colombia's vicious internal war. He also credits the Chávez government, and Ali Rodríguez in particular, with a radically changed policy toward the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that aims at curbing production increases and cooperating with non-OPEC member Mexico to raise oil prices. In fact, Chávez was so pleased with Rodríguez's election as OPEC president that he has proposed a meeting in Caracas, with guests to include Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Muhammad Khatami. If nothing else, this exquisite happening -- if it ever takes place -- should get Washington's attention. With the U.S. public already furious over gas prices, such a meeting would surely remind Americans of a studiously forgotten fact: Venezuela is the largest oil supplier of the United States, providing more petroleum than all Persian Gulf states combined.

SEIZING THE MOMENT

Gott sees Chávez's rise to power as a direct result of the violent rebellion in Caracas in February 1989, the Caracazo. This spontaneous uprising led to widespread looting and rioting before the military clamped down, killing hundreds in the process. The Caracazo protested the economic reforms introduced by then-President Carlos Andres Perez and his young, technocratic, American-trained ministers, Miguel Rodríguez and Moises Naím. These "shock troops" of the "Washington Consensus," Gott charges, sought to open up Venezuela's statist economy and impose the draconian price increases that led to the uprising. (Of course, Perez was not the only populist to "bait and switch" once in office; both Carlos Menem in Argentina and Alberto Fujimori in Peru also imposed harsh adjustment policies after taking office. But they succeeded, whereas Perez totally failed.)

Three years after the Caracazo, the 38-year-old Chávez staged his coup. His attempt to seize the presidential palace in Caracas failed, but the takeover was so successful in other parts of the country that Chávez was permitted to appear on television after surrendering to urge his co-conspirators to also give up. His appearance gave him national prominence. "The objectives we set ourselves have not been achieved ...," he told the Venezuelan people, "for the moment (por ahora)." Chávez's attempt to stage a second coup from his prison cell later that year also failed. But his phrase "por ahora" became the battle cry for his successful assumption of power through the ballot box.

Chávez's rise coincided with the disintegration of Venezuela's democracy, which was once seen as one of the most successful and stable in Latin America. Between 1992 and 1999, the party system that had run Venezuela since the 1950s collapsed. Venezuela's two dominant parties, Democratic Action and the Christian Democrats, traditionally took more than 90 percent of the vote in presidential elections and more than 80 percent of seats in the lower house of Congress. But today, they are marginal actors with little presence outside the state and local level. Venezuela lies in totally new political territory. Why this political collapse happened is therefore a more interesting question than the emergence of Chávez -- and it is not attributable only to "corruption," as Gott implies.

In this respect, Venezuela does offer at least one disturbing lesson with potentially wider implications for the Andean republics: the prospect of radical economic reform can so severely disrupt a clientelistic, patronage-driven political system that it undermines its very foundation. Venezuela is an extreme case, but it may be joined by others. It had oil to fuel its corruption and payoffs, but so does Ecuador; old-line parties have also been undermined in Colombia and Peru -- with dangerous ramifications for both countries' democratic prospects.

Still, Chávez's popularity among poorer voters is not hard to explain. By the 1990s, per capita income in Venezuela lay below its level in the 1960s; industrial wages now stand at 40 percent of what they were in the 1980s; 66 percent of the population earns less than $2 a day; and unemployment is rife. More than half of the employed population works in the informal sector. Private investment fell 25 percent during Chávez's first year in office, while the economy contracted more than seven percent and capital flight exploded despite a threefold rise in oil prices. Chávez's populist anti-oligarchy rhetoric thus finds a powerful resonance among the disadvantaged and the volatile inhabitants of the shantytowns; the poor, after all, make up more than 80 percent of the electorate. But the grim economic statistics also underline the great challenge that Chávez faces in satisfying popular demands.

Chávez has essentially dismantled Venezuela's old institutions and ratified the process through five elections. He has closed down Venezuela's Congress and Supreme Court, abolished the 1961 constitution, and renamed the country the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." He has also taken time out to visit China, including Mao's tomb, where he assured his hosts that Venezuela was beginning to "stand up" just as the "Great Helmsman" had done 50 years before. He went to Havana to play baseball with Castro, declaring that he found the Cuban and Venezuelan people bathing "in the same sea of happiness." And he has blocked U.S. flights over Venezuelan airspace, preventing their surveillance of Colombian drug traffickers. All this has made him widely popular with the majority of the Venezuelan people -- and vigorously hated by its elite.

THE COLONEL'S LABYRINTH

Chávez has attacked the oligarchy (much to Gott's delight), but in reality the split between the haves and the have-nots is becoming more pronounced. The oligarchy has already shifted its assets to Miami and New York, and capital flight will reach an estimated $10 billion this year -- half the amount of Venezuela's annual oil income, or a quarter of the state's total revenues. The real divide now is between the voters in the shantytowns, who support Chávez, and the dwindling middle class, which opposes him. Chávez has also brought the country's nationalized oil company under strict government control. This has helped boost Chávez's spending on social programs, but the revenues still do not cover all that he promised. Then there is Chávez's plan for integrated agro-industrial projects, which would relocate much of the urban population to the countryside. Gott's approval of this "bold plan" takes on a sinister air, given that he once praised the Khmer Rouge's anti-urban policies and was among the last major leftists to condemn Pol Pot.

Gott also ignores the fact that the coalition of military and civilian backers that supported Chávez's presidential bid has frayed. Chávez has now lost the support of several of his key military fellow plotters, most notably Francisco Arias, a former military officer and an ideological leader of the 1992 coup who previously served as governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia. Arias is the first serious rival to Chávez since the collapse of the main political parties and ran against Chávez in the postponed "mega-election" on July 30. The army, thrown into the political arena, is also beginning to fear the threat that Chávez poses to its professionalism and hierarchy. Without mediating institutions, it is also not surprising that opposition has emerged among his old supporters in the army, the Catholic Church, the business community, and the media.

Regrettably, Gott often buries the bad news that might otherwise qualify his optimistic assertions about Chávez. He first writes that the government "acted with considerable competence and speed" after last December's devastating floods and mudslides but later admits that there was public criticism of the reaction of the security forces. In fact, the mishandling of the disaster provoked the first breakup within the Chávez coterie. This divide worsened after the political police, headed by Jesœs Urdaneta, were accused of torture and summary executions. Demands by Chávez's cabinet members (most notably Foreign Minister Rangel) that these charges be investigated led Urdaneta to charge that some of Chávez's civilian supporters (namely, Rangel and Miquilena) were corrupt. In turn, this provoked the split between Chávez and Arias. Urdaneta lost his job and joined Arias in the opposition. All of this happened too quickly for the publication of Gott's book, which calls Arias "the most prominent intellectual within the Chávez movement."

Gabriel García Márquez observed after meeting Chávez that he was "overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposite men: one of whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country; the other, an illusionist who would pass into the history books as just another despot." For now, it is difficult to see a happy outcome. Chávez has set the precedents for extraconstitutional action and armed insurrection. The plebiscatory ratification of his power grab is the stuff of dictatorship, not democracy. Without the mechanisms for democratic consensus-building and negotiated conciliation, the door is wide open for others to step in and claim they represent the popular will.

Despite Gott's enthusiasm, Chávez remains the quintessential outsider, the military caudillo with eclectic nationalist and leftist views like the countless Latin American autocrats of yore who supposedly disappeared with the onset of democratization and market liberalization in the 1990s. Chávez represents a step backward to the violent, personalized rule of the charismatic leader on horseback, to the disastrous legacy of his hero, Bolívar. In short, Venezuela will start the twenty-first century just where the early nineteenth century left off. And Chávez might soon find himself trapped in the labyrinth of the old Venezuelan general, so brilliantly described by García Márquez as "the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams."

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  • Kenneth Maxwell is Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Inter-American Studies and Director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He reviews books on the western hemisphere for Foreign Affairs.
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