The contender’s comeback

In these days of timorous conformity to the Washington consensus, most politicians are fairly expendable. Only a select few stand out from the bland ranks of IMF-speak clones. But, according to the Venezuelan people, their president, Hugo Chavez, is most definitely one who does.

There was nothing pre-ordained about the coup that ousted Chavez last weekend. He angered his country’s business community and large landowners by embarking on radical social and economic reform and expropriating large land holdings. They, in turn, plotted his downfall. Factions in the military, who held personal grudges against Chavez, colluded. But all these groups underestimated the strength of Chavez’s popularity. Massive pro-Chavez protests ensured his return to power in under 48 hours; the coup d’etat by the business oligarchs foiled. Now, the president’s opponents will have to live with Chavez and his “Bolivarian Revolution.” It won’t be easy.

Chavez has earned himself a place in the history books. He has proved his popularity in the most unequivocal fashion: risking their own safety, his supporters thronged the streets in record numbers to reinstate their ousted hero. Yet the returning suzerain is in magnanimous mood. “There will be no witch hunts, no persecution, no disrespect for free expression or thought,” Chavez told his people.

Contrite as he may sound, the old tiger is hardly defanged. Chavez, in the past, has championed the poor and bitterly antagonised his country’s traditional elites. On his return to power, he stressed that his radical reforms will continue with renewed vigour. It was Chavez who instituted the “Bolivarian Revolution,” a public reform programme pointedly named after Simon Bolivar, South America’s 19th century liberation hero, who freed the continent from the clutches of Spanish colonialism. Chavez’s firebrand version of Bolivar’s politics advocate greater state intervention in the economy and policies that favour the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged. His Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR) is aligned to leftist forces including his main coalition partner, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). But not all the leftist groups are politically aligned to Chavez, or are enamoured by his charms. Carlos Ortega, head of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the country’s largest trade union, has emerged as one of his most bitter opponents. Chavez, in turn, accuses the CTV of being a wing merely of the “corrupt oligarchs.”

Chavez is a democratically-elected leader. But he is also, at heart, a soldier. Some 60 per cent of the Venezuelan electorate voted for him in the 1998 presidential poll. But he then fell ruthlessly on what he branded as the ‘counter-revolutionary’ opposition, including the pro-business media. Chavez ordered three main television channels to stop broadcasts and the National Guard, an elite corps loyal to Chavez, fired on anti-government demonstrators before his ouster, 13 of whom were reportedly killed.

Venezuela’s neighbours are not particularly supportive of his political agenda. Most eye his social reforms with suspicion and downplay the democratic credentials of the former army commander who also led a failed coup in 1992. The Organisation of American States in Washington has voiced grave concerns about media restrictions. Chavez has annoyed the US by choosing as his political mentor the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who in turn adopted Chavez as a political son. In the aftermath of 11 September, Chavez lambasted the Bush administration for “fighting terror with terror,” and paid a visit to Baghdad in solidarity with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Chavez, like Castro, displays an alarming tendency as far as the US is concerned to do what he wants, irrespective of Washington’s wishes.

US officials have been glaringly faint in their praise for Chavez’s triumphant return. Condoleezza Rice, US national security adviser, expressed her hope that Chavez “takes this opportunity to right his own ship which has, quite frankly, been moving in the wrong direction for some time.”

Yet the problem with that is that Chavez now feels he has won a popular mandate for his policies of the most unarguable sort. Anti-Chavez protests climaxed last Thursday leading to Venezuela’s rapid descent into political chaos. Amid the electrically charged political climate, the army stepped in, and appointed Pedro Carmona, head of the Fedecamaras business chamber, as president the following day. Venezuela’s army commander, Efrain Vasquez Velasco, who betrayed his old master Chavez, told the nation that Chavez was under investigation for crimes committed against the people. “Justice must be done!” he cried.

Chavez was first taken to Fort Tiuna army base on the outskirts of the Venezuelan capital Caracas and then spirited out of Caracas and detained in the Caribbean island resort of Orchila. Carmona’s presidency lasted no longer than a day, and Chavez’s Vice President Diosdaso Cabello was temporarily sworn in. Cabello proved no hardier, and on Sunday, Chavez was triumphantly flown back to the Miraflores presidential palace.

“What my rivals don’t understand is that Hugo Chavez is not Chavez, but the people of Venezuela,” the Venezuelan president said after his astonishing comeback.

With 25 million people, Venezuela is far from South America’s most influential nation. The Caribbean country that also straddles the Andes Mountains does not have the political and economic weight of Brazil or Mexico, which strategically border the US. But it does have oil and is the world’s fourth largest oil exporter. Last year, Venezuela supplied 13 per cent of US oil imports. As such, it is one of the chief trading partners of the US in South and Central America.

Thanks to its oil wealth, Venezuela has enjoyed relative political stability and a period of unbroken multi-party democracy that lasted from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. During that period, two main parties took turns to share power: the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, both of which served the interests of what Chavez cockily dismissed as the “predatory oligarchs” and “corrupt servants of international capital.” During the 1990s, the country fell into the mere of economic decline as oil prices tumbled, and Venezuelans grew more fastidious in their choice of leaders. The lackadaisical monotony of the old order began to irk, and the people began to hanker after fresh ideas and more vigorous politics.

Enter Hugo Chavez. The man has always had a brilliant populist instinct, girdled with fierce ambition. Whether as tactic or conviction, he deliberately and conspicuously placed himself outside the tired and tarnished political order.

His abrupt appearance on Venezuela’s political stage sent shivers down the spines of the country’s well-heeled elite, and set the stage for a show-down between the haves and the have-nots.

Oil, of course, became the centrepiece in the struggle for Venezuela’s future. Despite the risks to his standing with the US, Venezuela has joined countries like Iran, Iraq and Libya in calling for higher crude oil prices in an attempt to boost treasury receipts at a time of domestic difficulty. But as a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Venezuela has had to follow the group’s oil price decisions, and has suffered from falling crude oil prices, which for Venezuelans have translated into plummeting living standards. Petroleum production has shrunk as Venezuela’s OPEC export quota of 2.5 barrels per day fell to about a million barrels a day. A crippling strike in the petroleum sector further aggravated the situation.

The country’s latest political crisis came immediately after Chavez’s televised dismissal of senior managers at the state-owned oil company Petroles de Venezuela (PDVSA). Chavez had previously starved the PDVSA of funds when the management failed to obey his orders. Chavez’s bold interventionist approach enraged his political foes. Venezuela’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $5,250, which compares favourably with many of its Caribbean, Central and South American neighbours. But income inequalities were growing fast. The gap between rich and poor in Venezuela is now among the highest in South America, a continent already notorious for that particular blight.

The $4 billion in annual foreign investments, mostly in the oil sector, have failed to turn the economy round. Inflation is running rampant and the country is sinking under debt. Venezuela’s external debt currently stands at a horrendous $35 billion. The Venezuelan economic and political turmoil has taken its toll on the national currency, the bolivar, whose value has dropped vis- é-vis the US dollar. Between November and February, the Venezuelan central bank spent over $7 billion trying to prop up the bolivar.

It is hoped that with Chavez back at the helm, Venezuela may regain a modicum of confidence in its economic prospects. But whether Chavez can live up to his revolutionary ambitions is another matter. His enemies are legion. He cannot discharge his responsibilities and duties without the help of his supporters and as a result will have to better the lot of his country’s poor – they have after all put their faith in him. His course is perilous. And the harbour is not yet in sight.