Is the party over for Hugo Chávez?

Suffering from cancer, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez faces an intense re-election campaign this year.Will the extravagant leader prevail in the oil-rich nation, asks Richard Fitzpatrick

HUGO Chávez is unwell. Since announcing on Feb 21 that he required surgery for a second malignant tumour, the Venezuelan president has spent 56 days in Cuba receiving medical treatment. Henrique Capriles, his rival in the upcoming presidential election on Oct 7, criticises him for governing by Twitter.

The unknown nature of the cancer afflicting Chávez — the public doesn’t know the type or location of it — has caused growing uncertainty in Venezuela. In the last year, Chávez has undergone three operations and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

On May 1, Chávez announced a “council of state”, ostensibly set up to organise Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Observers believe, however, that the inner sanctum of eight advisers, which includes vice-president Elías Jaua, has been set up to plan for his departure, should his reign, which he once said would last until 2031, end prematurely.

His has been an extraordinary journey. Born in 1954 in a village in Los Llanos, the grassy marshlands of western Venezuela, he was raised by a grandmother in a mud cabin whose palm-leaf roof leaked water whenever it rained.

Chávez enrolled in a military academy at 17 years of age, and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time he took part in a failed coup d’état in Feb 1992. As one of the rebels’ commanders, Chávez was allowed make a brief live television address to avert further deaths. Togged out in combat fatigues and red paratroopers’ beret, he told his comrades to lay down their weapons, that their assault was over, “por ahora”, for now, a bold caveat which announced him to the nation.

He was released on amnesty after two years’ imprisonment. His embrace of democratic politics concluded with a landslide victory in Venezuela’s presidential election in Dec 1998.

“Chávez sees himself as being on a mission,” says Bart Jones, the American author of ¡Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution. “He has been outraged by the social injustice in Venezuela, which he lived through himself, having been raised in poverty. He says he wants to transform the country. He saw it as a very corrupt place run by a small group of elites. In 1989, the government led a massacre, killing hundreds if not several thousand people, in the wake of protests at IMF austerity measures. He saw the country’s leaders as having blood on their hands, and believed that they squandered some of the richest oil reserves in the world.”

Oil flows in Venezuela like water. At about 50c a tank, it’s cheaper to fill up the car at a petrol station than it is to buy a bottle of water. Along with driving inflation, which is currently at 28%, Latin America’s highest rate, oil has fostered endemic corruption.

“Chávez has promoted the dream that we are a rich country that does not need to work,” says Alberto Barrera Tyszka, author of Hugo Chávez sin Uniforme.

“It’s the illusion that oil changed the country since it was unearthed in the early 20th century — the fantasy that wealth should not be produced, but that it only has to be divided. The dream that we are all rich but we were robbed, ‘disinherited’, and that his policy is to return what has been taken from us.”

When Chávez assumed office in 1999, Venezuela received 1% royalty payments from oil companies; today, it gets as much as 33% and has transferred the majority stake of its refining facilities to the state-owned arm, Petróleos de Venezuela.

His nationalisation project infuriated resident oil companies. A few, such as BP, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell, reluctantly acquiesced to his reclamation demands; others like Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhilips pursue compensation claims, among 20 arbitration cases hanging over the state, through international courts.

Chávez uses the oil money to fund extravagant social programmes. In 1999, oil was $10 a barrel; it is now 10 times that price. In keeping to the letter of his socialist philosophy, he barters oil to allies in exchange for everything from Caribbean rice and Argentinean cows to Cuban sports instructors.

The country’s cities are peppered with mercals — discount supermarkets. Household maids are getting an education for the first time. The government has set up medical clinics, manned by Cuban doctors, in its barrios, the impoverished neighbourhoods that pockmark the country’s cities. According to UN figures, the poverty rate in Venezuela has fallen from 49.4% in 1999 to 27.8%. That he has given poverty its priority is his greatest glory.

Critics stress, however, that the Chávez-inspired social projects are populist in nature and short-term in execution, dependent as they are on the monies that flow from high oil prices.

“Chávez hasn’t built 1km of motorway. He hasn’t constructed one physical university. He has been taking over institutions but he hasn’t built anything. He’s sterile. He can’t produce,” says Oswaldo Barreto Miliani, a professor of humanities at the Central University of Venezuela. “Chávez has a slogan all over Venezuela. It’s everywhere. Every company he expropriates has the hallmark: ‘Hecho en socialism’ — made in socialism. Every commodity has a stamp saying ‘made in socialism’, but it was created previously by a capitalist corporation.”

The disaffection with the Bolívarian revolution of Barreto Miliani, or “Otto” to give him his nom de guerre, carries some weight. He is one of Venezuela’s most prominent left-wing revolutionaries, a one-time adviser to Fidel Castro, who is also alleged to have been beside Salvador Allende in 1973 as the sky fell in on his reign as Chile’s president. No other intellectual of his era in Venezuela was imprisoned so many times.

“Life for the poor in Venezuela is much better,” he concedes. “Por ahora. But tell me the work opportunities Chávez has made. How will he maintain the big salaries that state workers get? Productivity in industry in Venezuela is very low. All the products that you see here are imported — the milk, the sugar, the beans.

“Imposed socialism doesn’t work. Nobody during the Cold War stopped being what they were. People don’t want a revolution. They want to be left in peace. All his talent and all the faculties Chávez has demonstrated have been used to get power and to keep power, but he doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do with it.”

The unending revolutionary feel to the Chávez administration is stifling. His tenure has been bedeviled by rearguard actions, most strikingly during the botched coup attempt in 2002, when he disappeared for two days and narrowly avoided a roadside execution. There was a more cripplingly occurrence a few months afterwards when the country ground to a standstill as a result of a two-month oil strike. A blow conceived by his enemies to buckle the economy and force him out of office. There is a racist, classist element to the white elites’ hatred of him. “Eso mono” — this monkey, they say. “The peón, the farm hand, has taken over the farm.”

There is an ad hoc feel to the decision-making of Chávez, which is evident in Aló Presidente, the Sunday television and radio show which, until his illness, doubled as his government in action. As reality TV goes, it is unrivalled. It is a weekly, live address to the nation, shot on location — at oil fields, in schools, or on farms. One time, he was filmed as a surgical nurse helping out military doctors during an operation.

He will often talk for five, six, seven, or eight hours. He’ll gab to citizens who phone in, and point out on a map the places where he has just visited. He launches policy initiatives. He admonishes and fires errant lieutenants. He reminisces about his childhood and quotes liberally from his heroes, among them Simón Bolívar, the 19th- century revolutionary who freed large swathes of South America from Spanish rule, Jesus Christ, and, of course, his mentor, Castro. He recites poetry. He sings (not too badly). He flirts (once, on Valentine’s Day, he woozily told his second wife, who divorced him in 2002: “Marisabel, tonight you’re going to get yours”), and he warmongers with, among others, neighbouring Colombia.

Venezuelans wonder what lies in store. Cancer has been good to Chávez at the polls. He leads Capriles by double digits in some tallies, but Capriles outguns any replacement candidates in the same returns.

There is a split in the Chavista movement regarding successors. There are hardliners, such as Chávez’s older brother Adán and Jaua, his vice-president; and in the other camp, foreign minister Nicolás Maduro and National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello. They all lack electoral appeal.

Is Chávez terminally ill? Will he prevail in the autumn election? He has always been criticised for his unpredictable personality. This mystery is keeping them guessing like never before.

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