How will Putin’s Russia fare if and when oil and gas prices fall? How much of Tony Blair’s talk about a ‘third way’ in politics was empty populism? How serious is de Villepin’s commitment to eradicating poverty? How much of Zapatero’s popularity can be attributed to anti-Americanism? Are the New York Times and other newspapers biased against Bush? Given the controversey over his election in 2000, can we trust George W Bush’s democratic credentials? How dangerous is downtown LA after dark?
If you throw enough mud, some of it will stick, and so I find myself putting the above questions to Dr. Julia Buxton, Senior Research Fellow at Centre for International Cooperation and Security, in the Department of Peace Studies, Bradford University. However, the subject of our interview is not Putin, Blair or Bush, but Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, and target of concerted criticism in the western media [Medialens – ridiculing Chávez]. The labels attached to Chávez usually concentrate on his ‘populism’ or ‘anti-Americanism’ but Dr Buxton argues that Chávez is in fact a pragmatist, who came to power preaching something like a ‘third way’ and whose country continues to enjoy strong ties with the US.
Dr Buxton has been to Venezuela many times, studying Venezuelan politics and doing fieldwork in the country. She has also been there as an election observer, to lecture, for conferences and for research purposes. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by Three Monkeys Online.
How is Chávez viewed in South America, Latin America and Mexico?
In the absence of cross-regional opinion polls I am limited to conjecture in responding to this, but here are a few observations. I think that there is sympathy, if not support for Chávez among ordinary South American people in countries like Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Colombia. Because Chávez has directly addressed the needs of the poor through his Missions programs he is one of the few leaders and politicians on the Continent who is identified with pro-poor causes, even more so given his commitment to rolling these social and welfare initiatives out into other South and Central American states. His powerful anti-neoliberal rhetoric and criticism of the Bush administration (which is deeply unpopular for a variety of reasons across the region) has also made him something of a hero to those that feel neglected and marginalised by mainstream politics and free market agendas.
How genuine is his commitment to the Missions programme? What are conditions like on the ground inVenezuela? Has Chávez really addressed the needs of the poor?
Yes, I think he has, in two senses. Firstly economic: the Chávez government has reoriented the established patterns of government spending, which for decades were concentrated and focused on the wealthier sectors of society (largely through tax breaks, subsidies and universal subsidies that disproportionately benefited wealthier groups – as with petroleum, education and medicines). By radically altering established patterns of public spending in favour of marginalised groups (reinforced by the introduction of income tax) and investing in areas that enhance social capital (education, health, housing, land distribution, credit availability) the government has addressed the needs of the poor. The problem is if current strategies are sustainable – if oil prices dip, then the development model (which already has a number of contradictions) cannot be maintained.
The commitment to the missions programme is, in my view, irrefutable. These social policy projects only developed after 2003 (after the defeat of the opposition post the 2002 coup and the strong rise in the oil price). I think the commitment stems more from a nationalist integrationist focused project rather than a commitment to ‘socialism’. We have had over 2,000 schools built, 8,000 clinics, 20,000 Cuban doctors brought in, 1.5 million people reincorporated back into education – these kinds of policies are essential if Venezuela’s tragic economic and social under-development is to be overcome.
Chávez has also addressed the needs of the poor in a political sense. In this respect he has brought into the political process and empowered people that were marginalised and excluded from mainstream politics – people whose needs and demand for representation were ignored. The challenge now is to allow this new model of representation to develop autonomously, without people being tied to the Chavista movement through clientelist or other means. My honest view is that things on the ground have improved dramatically and significantly: you can see the changes and the impact of the changes on the lives of the poorest. But, as I say, the key is sustainability, accountability in delivery and equity in access.
As for his popularity at the elite level, regional heads of state also seem to be sympathetic to Chávez – for two primary reasons. Firstly Chávez is recognised as democratically elected and – interlinked with this – there is strong opposition to any actions that violate the sovereignty of individual states. This is a powerful sentiment in South America and, as a result, there is some anger with the US for its clumsy diplomacy and intervention in Venezuela’s domestic affairs.
Much has been made of the friction between Chávez and, for example, President Lula of Brazil. I think these tensions have been exaggerated. Rather than berating Chávez, there appears to be a regional consensus that Venezuela should not be ‘satanized’. This came across quite clearly in recent statements by the current and former president’s of Chile – a country that the US has sought to cultivate against Chávez. The right wing in South America has always been politically, ideologically and electorally weak, so there has not been a large-scale mobilisation against Chávez led by right of centre individuals. It should also be noted that Chávez is tremendously pragmatic, as underscored by his close relations with President Uribe of Colombia, arguably the most right-wing president in the region. The majority of South American presidents also understand that Chávez is a specific product of the political and economic under-development of Venezuela – as such, the reach of his Boliviarian revolution is rather constrained. Clearly the enormous wealth generated by the oil price highs has provided Chávez with fiscal leverage and influence, in turn causing some regional concern as to how transparently the Venezuelan government handles its resources.
However, there is a potential risk of ‘overstretch’ by Chávez in two respects. Firstly, Chávez must respect principles of state sovereignty and not be too incautious in expressing his support for candidates in upcoming regional elections (Nicaragua and Mexico) – as he did for the (defeated) candidate in the recent Peruvian elections, Ollanta Humala. This type of intervention is unwelcome and could backfire on the Venezuelan government. Secondly, Venezuela must understand that other South and Central American countries are not positioned to challenge the US in the same way that Venezuela has been able to. Venezuela’s decision to pull out of the Community of Andean Nations following the move by Peru and Colombia to sign bilateral free trade agreements with the US was a demonstration of Venezuela’s commitment to an alternative model of regional economic integration. But in presenting neighbours with a black and white, us or the US option, Chávez runs the risk of polarising relations in the region and forcing neighbouring countries into more politically flexible accords with the USA.
How is Chávez viewed in the west?
As in South America there is a division between opinions at the grassroots and among the elite – although in the West, these are probably more pronounced. Developments in Venezuela have catalysed the emergence of solidarity groups from London to Vienna, San Francisco to Paris. These incorporate anti-war groups, trade unions, student organisations, fringe left of centre parties, anti-globalisation activists and ordinary ‘democrats’ angered by the provocative interventions by the US and the failure of the Bush administration to recognise the democratic legitimacy of the Chávez administration. Venezuela has served as a mechanism for introducing a whole new generation to political activism. At the elite level, the UK has followed the US in assuming a jaundiced view of Chávez, although it has been more diplomatic in its posturing – bar some unfortunate statements from the Prime Minister. Spain, France and Italy have been more pragmatic, but within the EU, they face pressure from some of the Central European countries that have adopted a strong &ldquohuman rights” position on Cuba (Fidel Castro not Guantanamo Bay!). The right wing is more powerful in Europe than South America, and as a result, we have had a more critical stance adopted by some Christian Democrat and Conservative Parties from EU countries. Unfortunately, many come to the debate without really understanding the political and economic history and context of Venezuelan politics. There are clearly concerns as to energy security over the longer term, but this requires more effective engagement by the EU countries, rather than the blind assumption of a critical position. The great irony in all of this is that on the whole, EU based business and investment interests have been ‘context’ sensitive from the start and have acknowledged both the legitimacy and the pro-poor agenda of the Venezuela administration.
The US is of course a different situation. In relation to America, I would say that the US has been inept, clumsy, bellicose and anachronistic in its response to Chávez. I would further argue that the US has transformed Chávez into a greater perceived ‘threat’ to US interests then Chávez was when he came to power, as a moderate advocate of third way economics, in 1999. The US has sought to interpret Venezuela through the lens of the Cold War overlaid with its new ‘long war’ against terrorism. It pursued a dreadfully misconceived approach when it channelled money to the anti-Chávez movement (it weakened rather than strengthened them) and statements condoning the coup of 2002 angered regional neighbours in addition to being a highly undemocratic response. US diplomacy has been inept and short-sighted and until the US accepts and comes to terms with the deep resentment toward perceived American imperialism, not only in Venezuela, but across the region, it will find it difficult to claw back any popularity or respect.
Do you think the western media is biased against Chávez and if so, why?
Yes, for several reasons. Firstly, a large number of Western media commentators feel that they have ‘seen this all before’ with Chile (Salvador Allende) and Argentina (Juan Peron). This has led them to rely (lazily) on old concepts – such as the vacuous notion of populism – and old debates. In this respect, they have come to the issue of Venezuela with established preconceptions about left of centre politics in South America. Interlinked with this, there is, I think, an element of racism and elitism. Because Chávez is ‘of the people’ and not a regular fixture on the cocktail circuits, many journalists do not really know how to interpret him – other than through tried, tested and usually irrelevant ideas and references. Further to this, some influential journalists have gone through an ideological rebirth over the past few decades and have moved from a position on the far left to one on the pro neo-con, neo-liberal right. I am thinking about the Economist, the FT etc here. Having recanted their earlier beliefs, they are disparaging toward any attempt to re-establish socialism or any other form of anti-neoliberal agendas. Those in the media that have no roots in South American politics or left wing politics have been reluctant to overcome their ignorance and have produced misinformed and factually incorrect reports and analyses of developments in Venezuela. We saw that very much in evidence during Chávez’s visit to the UK – perhaps best exemplified by the Independent newspaper. So it is a mixture of a number of things – laziness, ignorance, journalism on a shoe string. Finally, investigative journalism is not very strong. Too many media commentators provide a ‘Hilton’ hotel view of events and never venture into the slums – where Chávez’s programs and support are concentrated. [For an alternative to the Hilton see: http://www.vheadline.com/readnews.asp?id=57059]
In an editorial the Guardian attributed most of his popularity in Europe to anti-Americanism (“my enemy’s friend is my friend”). Would you agree?
No, not at all. People are interested in Venezuela, and Chávez is popular, for a host of reasons other than his anti-Americanism – which most people fail to recognise is pragmatic and underlined by continued strong bilateral economic ties between Venezuela and the US. America is currently deeply unpopular because it lied about WMD in Iraq, it acted without the consent of the UN when it invaded Iraq, it sought to censor and control media coverage of US operations in Iraq and it has committed terrible human rights abuses in the course of building ‘democracy’ in Iraq. And of course, there is also the view that the invasion was motivated by the US pursuit of Iraqi oil reserves. People who back Chávez do so because they do not believe what the US really says anymore – nor do they think the US has the legitimacy to pontificate about democracy, human rights or international law. People defend Venezuela because they do not want another pre-emptive strike on another oil producer justified through untruths and disinformation. Chávez is a democratically elected head of state, who, for the first time in contemporary South American politics, has challenged the hegemony of the US and neo-liberalism. He has been outspoken in his criticism of the Iraqi war and other facile and destructive elements of US foreign policy – Colombia, the ‘war on drugs’, Iran, Guatanamo Bay – among others. In the absence of European heads of state prepared to constructively criticise the US and reign back the most destructive and authoritarian strands of the country’s foreign policy, Chávez is a hero.
You describe populism as a vacuous notion. If Chávez is not a populist, what is he? You mention the “third way.” Does (or did) Chávez resemble Tony Blair and New Labour (past or present; actual or stated)?
I do not like the term populist because it is meaningless. It is used by people who like to gloss over (or do not know / appreciate) the more complex dynamics that underpin a given administration. Populism also implies that supporters of the ‘populist’ are somehow irrational. I do not think this is the case in Venezuela – yes Chávez came out of a vacuum of political organisation and yes he is the central figure in the administration – but the more complex reality is that popular organisations and grassroots groups have more political capacity, dynamism and influence than is thought, the Chávez government contains strong and influential figures – and the military remain important actors. What I am saying is that Chávez is far weaker, more accountable to different groups and in a more fragile position than is assumed when people read the word ‘populist’.
So what is he? Depends what week or year we are talking about. He is a chameleon, a pragmatist, a man who absorbs new ideas, moves to craft new political alliances and who understands the mobilisational power of anti-American sentiment and demands for justice. He was initially elected professing a Third Way model – in which the state would compensate for the failings of the market. However, the rise of the oil price and the behaviour of foreign and domestic capital sectors have convinced him that Third Way economics cannot work. I expect that a dramatic plunge in the oil price might force him to revert back to the Third Way!
The economy of Venezuela shrank in 2002 and 2003 quite drastically. How did Chávez hold on to power in the circumstances?
He held on to power because he was widely supported. Chávez was elected after decades of misgovernment by profoundly unpopular and corrupt political parties – AD and COPEI. They ran the country and the economy into the ground. Chávez enjoyed a long honeymoon period (from 1999 onwards), and this was enhanced following the opposition protests (which gained pace after 2001) – which despite the appearance at the time, lacked massive public support. When the economy dipped catastrophically, people identified the economic contraction with the opposition. It was their strategies of lock-outs, non-payment of taxes, capital flight and paralysing the oil sector that caused the economic deterioration and this was recognised by the majority of people – who were Chávez supporters. Moreover I think people who had been wavering about Chávez – particularly poor people – saw the regressive and undemocratic actions and characteristics of the opposition and came to the conclusion they were better off with Chávez.
The economy boomed in 2004 and 2005. How much is due to oil? Does this mean that Chávez’s position (and his social programmes) is precarious in that it is overdependent on one source of income?
Yes absolutely. Strong growth driven by rising oil export revenues and high levels of government spending. Non-oil taxation has improved, but overall, the government remains dependent on oil for the bulk of its revenues – if anything oil ‘dependence’ has deepened under Chávez, despite commitments in 1998 to diversify the economic base. So, yes, the funding basis of the social programmes is precarious.
Chávez attempted a coup once. Is the US not right, then, to regard him with suspicion?
There are a couple of issues here. Firstly – yes the coup went against &ldquointernational democratic norms,” but there was a very serious underlying issue about the use of violence by the Andres Perez government during the Caracazo of 1989 in addition to generalised problems of exclusion and lack of representation. The Venezuelan state was using violence and brutality against its own citizens and in many respects, this brought an inevitable response from the military, which was used by Andres Perez in 1989 to put down protests. So, if you have a situation where political grievances cannot be channelled or addressed peacefully, non-traditional actors / approaches do come to the fore. Secondly, we live in a world where pragmatic choices are routinely made in the interests of stability. The US could have used its diplomacy more effectively and rather than reacting negatively to Chávez because of his involvement in the coup, a more refined and ‘soft’ approach could have been pursued. I think this is particularly the case given that Chávez served time in prison for the coup and that he subsequently opted to pursue power through the ballot box. Finally, and linking back to the point about pragmatism, the US has shown itself capable of dealing with military figures who have seized power, carried out coups etc – Pakistan being the most obvious example.
What are the Tascon and Maisanta lists?
In sum – very unfortunate and regrettable developments. Essentially Tascon was a list of those people that had voted for Chávez to step down in the August 2005 recall referendum. Luis Tascon, a Chavista deputy then took the appalling step of posting this on his website so that anti-Chavistas could be identified. The logic then – as with the Maisanta list, is that anti-Chavistas are known. It was subsequently claimed that the list was used to deny people employment in the public sector etc. It was regrettable that Tascon was not punished and that the government did not take this gross violation of election information more seriously.
How dangerous is, for example, downtown Caracas?
After dark – very dangerous. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, ahead of Colombia and Afghanistan. The main victims of violence are young men – and they are also the main perpetrators. Speed knapping at cashpoints is also a major problem. Insecurity has been a problem in the country since the late 1980s. No government has developed an effective security plan – a problem exacerbated by the fact that the police force and security sector are under fragmented lines of institutional responsibility – more so since decentralization in the early 1990s.
How oppressive is life in Venezuela for opponents of Chávez? Film maker Jonathan Jakubowicz is being prosecuted for insulting him.
It is a controversial topic, but my own view remains that opponents of Chávez drastically abused the freedom and privileges enjoyed by the private sector media and press liberty in Venezuela to attack the government and destabilise the country. This brought an inevitable reaction from the Chávez government but again, I think the idea that the opposition have been gagged and face serious threats to their freedoms is overexaggerated. The press remains lively and critical and censorship remains far below that exercised in, for example, the US or the UK. In terms of the film you mention, I think the government has over-reacted. The film creates more questions about inequality and poverty than it answers and if anything, it justifies the social programmes introduced by the government. There is a more serious question underlying all of this, which is how can both the government and its opponents create space for tolerance and pluralism?
Is Chávez attacking property rights?
The administration was committed to property rights but appeared to renege on this when a series of land takeovers in agricultural was authorised. There is a serious issue about the legality and justice of current landholding structures in the country. With 70% of agricultural lands controlled by just 3% of proprietors there is a serious issue of equity, development and distribution. The need to redistribute land is unquestionable, the key issue is if the government is executing land reform in a legal and fair way that is within the due process of law. So I think if a person, family or company has legal ownership, then property rights have not been questioned. The problem, as we have seen, is when the legality of the property rights are non-existent, non-contract based and not provable.
Does Chávez control the public media? Can the bias of the privately owned media against him justify government control of the public media?
There needs to be a sense of perspective on this. The public media is a miniscule share of overall media output – not even in double figures yet as far as I am aware. I do not think Chávez “controls” it per se. Clearly it reflects a government position (as the public sector media in many countries tends to do) but community groups (which now have a key role in providing output) are not as ‘controllable’ as may be through and they have been very active in developing independent output. I will try and send you a good research paper on this by Naomi Schiller in the US. It goes back to the points made in the last set of questions, the whole idea that Chávez controls everything neglects the more complex reality – public sector broadcasting and TV production is far more dynamic and independent than thought. As this does not fit with pre-conceived ideas of Chávez, this reality tends to be ignored.