Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Crisis in Caracas – but for whom? Hugo Chavez and the recall referendum in Venezuela.

Venezuelan governments have always relied on the massive oil reserves that the country possesses – isn't Chavez the same, and what of the charge that he's 'buying' the support of the electorate? To what extent has the Bolivarian Revolution actually changed economic reality in Venezuela?

Yes, you are right. Venezuelan governments have relied on the oil revenue, and have used it to buy votes. While Chavez is doing just that, he has changed the rules of the game considerably by gaining direct control of PdVSA (the state oil company) in the wake of the strike in 2002/2003. He now has very large sums of money under the control of his government (increased by the current leap in the oil price), and is able to use them, not just for the purpose of pouring money into the shanty towns and the countryside on a whole series of ambitious programmes to help the poor (and of course to secure votes), but in order to embark on schemes of endogenous, or autarchic, development on a much longer time scale. While the economic reality is as yet much the same, the social reality is changing dramatically every day – which is why so many people are going to vote for Chavez. They may not have seen much economic improvement as yet (though the health and literacy programmes have already made a huge impact), but they know it's on the way.

I get a sense, from reading both your book and other sources, that Chavez doesn't necessarily do himself any favours on the PR front. For example, reaching out to Castro may be one thing in a Latin American context, but eulogising Mao in China, and visiting Saddam Hussein – easy points for the opposition to use to discredit him internationally – are quite another. Why do you think he does it?

Chavez is speaking and acting on behalf of the Venezuelan poor. He doesn't care too much about what they think of him in the United States or in Europe. Quite right too. As you suggest, it's perfectly alright to be friendly with Castro in the Latin American context. Castro remains one of the few really popular figures in Latin America, raising huge crowds from all generations wherever and whenever he goes. Mao Tse-tung is also a world figure from the 20th century who put his country on the map. Chavez plans to do the same, though clearly in a different way – since his country has not spent two decades under Japanese occupation. As for Saddam Hussein, Chavez went to visit Baghdad in the context of a visit to all the countries of OPEC which he was trying to kick-start into life at the time – with notable success.

It surely gives pause for thought, though, for liberals outside of Venezuela

who perhaps support the radical changes being made in Venezuela, when Chavez

is seen to support revolutionaries who historically have had scant regard for

either human rights or democratic elections? And surely it does matter what

people in the United States and Europe think of the Government in Venezuela, on

simply practical terms – and after all, Chavez has also met with European heads

of State to talk about investment.

Look, Chavez is not looking for ‘liberal’ support in the US or in Europe.

This does not count for a row of beans. The members of OPEC are, as you know, not

models of democratic practice, but Chavez, along with western governments and

western oil companies, is perfectly happy to live with them. Jack Straw

visits Iran, why should Chavez not visit Iran and Iraq?

Castro is a very special case. You cannot really accuse Castro of having

scant regard for human rights. Compared with the history of Latin America in the

last half century, his is a pretty shining example of a decent regime. Formal

western-style democracy (a very recent introduction in Latin America) is

certainly not the Cuban style, on the other hand they have a very interesting and

unfamiliar democratic model, and no one would deny that Castro is hugely

popular. True, the press is crap, and people get imprisoned for taking the side of

the enemy, but that it usual in wartime, and Cuba is under daily economic


As for European investment, Chavez only really needs it for the oil and gas

industry, and, as everyone knows, when it comes to oil (see Saudi Arabia)

nobody cares two hoots about democracy.

Basically I think that Chavez is under attack from a prejudiced media

(echoed by the foreign correspondents who live in Caracas), and nothing he did

would improve the image that they transmit, which has little to do with reality.

Chavez first came to prominence as the leader of a failed military coup in 1992. On election, he has brought the military into political life. Doesn't his background as a coup leader and general, along with this mobilization of the military in the political sphere give cause for concern? We rightly protest against right wing military involvement in other Latin American countries, shouldn't we apply the same rules to Venezuela?

Chavez has undoubtedly brought the military into political life in Venezuela, and indeed this is one of the most interesting aspects of his entire project. The Latin American military are the heirs to the Spanish conquistadores, and their historical role has been to protect the tiny group of white settlers against the rebellions of the indigenous peoples and the black slaves. They continued in this role until the end of the 20th century, crushing progressive governments that gave too much power to the poor (Peron in Argentina, Allende in Chile). Rather than leaving the military in a permanently threatening posture outside the political tent, Chavez has brought them into government. He has purged the more right-wing senior officers, and now relies on a new generation drawn largely from the poorer classes. These officers identify themselves and the troops they lead with the Chavez project, and there is little danger of a coup d'etat of the kind that overthrew Allende and Peron.

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