Peggy Ortiz is a blonde, 35-year-old self proclaimed Chavista (Chavez supporter) who works as a writer and radio producer in Caracas, Venezuela. On a walk through the city’s Plaza Bolivar she introduced me to her friends who were all, in her words, revolucionarios. One of them was a Che Guevara impersonator. He had the same smile, beret and goatee as El Comandante, and proudly rode a black moped around, giving high fives to street vendors selling Hugo Chavez T-shirts, key chains and alarm clocks.
“People believe in Chavez, I believe in him,” Ortiz explained as we walked past the stalls. “He’s a clean president, he doesn’t hide anything. Most people who are against Chavez don’t understand this political process.”
The majority of the Venezuelans I met felt this way. Many anti-Chavistas opposed the current administration as passionately as the Chavistas supported it. A history of economic inequality and violence fuel this polarization, which gained momentum in 1989, when right-wing President Carlos Andres Perez came into power. Perez implemented harmful International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustments, and accepted a massive loan from the IMF which critics claim plunged the country deeper into an economic recession. In 1992 Perez was forced from office on corruption charges.
The Caracazo, an uprising in Caracas against the Perez government in February of 1989, was met with massive military repression which left over 3,000 dead. This event marked a turning point in the country’s socio-political landscape. Hugo Chavez, then a young colonel in the army, refused to participate in the Caracazco crack down and in 1992 led an attempted coup d’etat against the Perez government. When the coup failed, Chavez took the blame for it and was imprisoned until 1994.
Soon after his release Chavez began a presidential campaign which took him across the country, gaining support from diverse sectors of society. He started out with little financial backing, often traveling in a broken-down pickup truck and giving speeches out of the back. His humble background — he grew up in a poor family — and fiery speeches offering a radical alternative to the wealthy, right-wing politicians in power, gave hope to a disenfranchised population, 60 percent of which lived below the poverty line. In the 1998 presidential election, he was swept into office.
Under Chavez’s government, literacy campaigns began, land reform was undertaken, free dentist offices, hospitals and schools were constructed in the poorest neighborhoods, government subsidized supermarkets and business cooperatives sprouted up all over the country. Much of these programs were fueled by oil money; Venezuela has one of the largest deposits of oil in the world. After reforms and partial nationalization of the industry, much of the oil profits steadily flowed into the Chavez administration.
Though Chavez supporters and their initiatives gained momentum, so did the social divide between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas. This divide came to a head in April 2002, when a U.S.-supported coup d’etat was staged against Chavez. Yet the rebellion was short lived. After an outpouring of support among civilian and military Chavistas, the illegitimate government was pushed from office. Chavez was back in the presidency within two days.
The Great Divide
Though violence between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas is infrequent now, the social and political divide continues. On a recent visit to Venezuela, I spoke with people for and against Chavez’s political process, as well some apathetic citizens and die hard revolucionarios.
William Barillas is a tall, bearded volunteer at Radio Horizante, a community radio station in Merida, Venezuela. He believed the Chavez administration is a significant improvement from previous governments. “This government has left the era when governments never did anything for the country. They used to just help capitalists, which were a minority of the population. This government actually cares about the education and health of poor people.”
Yolanda Zerpa, a coffee farmer in a mountainous region outside Merida, recently had her home and farmland destroyed by mudslides. When I spoke with her, she had just received a small loan from the Chavez government to help her recover from the disaster. She appreciated the loan, which she explained wouldn’t have been possible through a common bank due to her dire economic situation. Yet unlike other farmers in the region, she wasn’t a devout follower of Chavez. “I have never been interested in politics,” she explained. “It divides people and communities. I just do what work I can to support my family.”
This sentiment was echoed in Merquith Babilonia, who, since moving to Venezuela from a small town in Colombia in the late 1990s, has been fighting to make a living within a political structure that hasn’t always worked in his favor. “Under Chavez, a big sector of society is organized by a small amount of people,” he explained. “It is not democratic, it is very bureaucratic. The people that are high up in the community organizations have contacts with those in the government, and they exploit that privilege. The bosses don’t listen to the people below them.”
Babilonia experienced this hierarchy first hand when working in a social program that helped elderly people in a poor neighborhood in the city of Maracaibo, Venezuela. This program was partly financed by the Chavez government. “After one year of working at this place they didn’t pay me,” he said. “I received a small amount per month, but at the end of the year they were supposed to pay the rest of my earnings in a lump salary, but they didn’t give me anything.”
Babilonia has since gone back to demand the money but, as he explained, it is too dangerous to keep pressuring them. “It would be easier for the boss to pay someone to shoot me to avoid problems and save money. This is what I see beyond this revolutionary project,” he explained. Stories of corruption in politics and government-funded community projects are not uncommon in Venezuela.
“Yet due to corruption in the past, problems like this have been less frequent,” Babilonia continued. “The government is now financing a lot of cooperatives, because with cooperatives everyone has the same salary and power.”
At a newspaper stand in Altamira, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Caracas, I ran into Gabriel. He explained that he was a writer and literary critic, but refused to give me his last name. Gabriel was dressed in a business suit and had a mustache that he rubbed between words, as if to help him think. “It is important to support the things the government is doing well and criticize the things they are doing wrong,” he explained. “The Chavez administration should focus on more agricultural products, yet unfortunately it is becoming more dependent on oil. We buy our food from places like Brazil and Uruguay and in turn sell them oil at cheap prices. In this way we are buying solidarity. Oil is at the center of the political power of Chavez. Never before has oil had such an important role in Venezuelan politics.”
“Venezuelan people have not become richer with Chavez, but the poor are now happy to see the rich become poorer,” he continued. “Rich people are poorer because with Chavez’s politics we are buying more things from the exterior than we produce at home. There are also fewer investments in the country due to fears investors have about unclear policies and an insecure economic future in Venezuela … I think there is a movement to ‘Cubanize’ many sectors of Venezuela. This is impossible because there is not an ideological or philosophical revolution going on here. It is just populism.”
Right down the street in the same neighborhood, I ran into Jesus Gavidia, a telephone worker on his lunch break in a park. I asked him why he thought left-leaning politicians were being elected across the continent. “Leftist politicians like Chavez are winning all over Latin America now because people have lost faith in the old political parties which privatized everything, a policy that clearly doesn’t work,” he said, pointing to the slums on the hills surrounding Caracas. “In the 2006 presidential elections here, I think Chavez will win. The opposition doesn’t have a strong candidate or platform. The poor love Chavez because with him they see a way out of poverty.”
Benjamin Dangl is a freelance writer and editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics with a focus on South America.