[Editor’s note: Hugo Chavez won the recall referendum of August 15th.This interview was conducted prior to the referendum on the Chavez Presidency. For further info The Guardian]
In 1998 Hugo Chavez was elected with an overwhelming majority as the President of Venezuela. This election marked the demise of a cosy oligarchy that had ruled in this oil-rich South American country for over forty years. Chavez, a military General who in 1992 had tried to seize power in a failed military coup, had swept to power with a promise to initiate a 'Bolivarian Revolution', named after the Venezuelan leader Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of South America from direct Spanish colonial rule.
Chavez remains a focal point both for his supporters, and his opponents. He openly admires Fidel Castro, and is one of the few Latin American leaders to openly criticise neo-liberalism. Opposition to his Government has taken several directions, including a coup in 2002, which fell after less than 24 hours, (captured brilliantly in the documentary made by Irish Documentary makers Kim Bartley & Donnacha O Briain The revolution will not be televised), nationwide strikes. Now, using a mechanism from the new Constitution, that was introduced by Chavez, they have forced a recall referendum, due on August the 15th.
Chavez, to many, is a contradiction. A leftist coup leader (though that's far from unprecedented) who on election introduced a new Constitution, written by an elected constitutional assembly; an icon for the no-global movement, who at the same time is an extremely active member of OPEC. A leader who famously makes lengthy speeches on the state airwaves a la Castro, but who tollerates possibly the world's most ferociously biased and hostile press.
Three Monkeys Online interviewed Richard Gott, an ex senior editor of The Guardian, and Latin American Specialist, who was one of the first journalists to write extensively about Hugo Chavez, and has published In the Shadow of the Liberator – Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela.
What's the situation at the moment in Venezuela? What is the background to the referendum on August 15th? Has the seeming opposition to the referendum, on the part of the Government, damaged Chavez's reputation as a Democrat?
The referendum (on whether Chavez should remain in power or not, until 2006) was requested by the opposition under the terms of the new Constitution agreed in the early years of the Chavez government. Chavez, as would any other democratically elected politician, obviously opposed the referendum and sought to postpone it. But since the matter was not in his hands but under the control of the Independent Electoral Commission, there was little he could do. When the Commission eventually gave the go-ahead, Chavez welcomed the decision and has been campaigning energetically for a &ldquoNo” vote ever since (a &ldquoNo” to presidential recall). Chavez is all set to win a resounding victory on August 15th.
You say that Chavez &ldquoobviously opposed the referendum and sought to postpone it” – why if it’s part of a constitutional mechanism, part of
the Constitution called for by Chavez, would he oppose and seek to postpone
it? From a simply political view point, if he has such overwhelming support,
didn’t it make more sense to go along with it and receive yet another vindication
in the face of the opposition?
Chavez originally opposed the holding of a referendum because he thought it
was a tiresome interruption to the work of government, yet another of the
opposition's games. I think he was always confident that he could win it, but
obviously the longer it was postponed the more time he would have to get his
programmes for the poor up and running – and making a difference. Having myself been
in Caracas in December and in July, I was amazed by the growth and extent of
the popular mobilisation.