What to make of Hugo Chavez? By the lights of the Bush administration, the President of Venezuela is an anti-American rabble rouser, a devoted friend to the loathed Fidel Castro, a rogue state unto himself, given to playing politics with Venezuela’s oil industry, which supplies about 15 percent of the U.S.’s crude. To his increasingly frustrated political opponents in Venezuela, Chavez, a former army colonel, is a leftist demagogue who stirred up a wave of class and racial resentments and rode it to the presidency, and who, in office, has dealt himself new powers at every chance, on his way to becoming an out-and-out caudillo. And to a certain school of international opinion, exemplified by The Economist magazine, Chavez is an wacky utopian who sooner or later will run the Venezuelan economy into the ground.
True, Chavez is, for a world leader, refreshingly free with his opinions of the Bush administration. (And often, as at the United Nations last month, entertainingly so.) He makes a show of railing against US “imperialism,” cheerfully baits and ridicules George W. Bush, and matter-of-factly denounces the U.S. as a “terrorist state.” Most days, it seems, he surfaces somewhere in the media alleging dark White House plots against his life. (Pace Pat Robertson, this seems farfetched.) And he’s quite convinced that the Bush administration backed, or at least countenanced, a coup attempt against him in 2002 (which seems quite plausible). Also true, his governing style is frankly populist, and he routinely excoriates Venezuela’s elite class, which dominates the political opposition and which, until the rise of Chavez, dominated the country’s politics. Certain of his reform laws—in particular one regulating the media and another reshuffling the judiciary—have drawn protests from international rights groups. And yes, there’s the matter of la lista, the list of signatures submitted in 2004 to demand a referendum on Chavez’s recall, which, so signatories claim, now functions as a black list, deployed by the Chavez government to deny them jobs and services.
Then again, there’s no gainsaying the fact that Chavez first won office, in 1998, in a fair election with 56 percent of the vote, or that since then he has prevailed in several electoral tests—not to mention a general strike and a coup attempt—growing steadily in popularity each time. Nor is there any denying that he has brought into the democratic process, for the first time, large numbers of Venezuela’s poor, most of whom live in the ranchos, or shanty towns, that ring the cities. (As for his alleged class baiting, in a country where the poor account for about 80 percent of the population and where income inequality is extreme and glaring, democratic politics can’t help but involve issues of class—and race: Venezuela’s poor are disproportionately black and indigenous.) Through a string of “missions” the Chavez government has brought healthcare and education to many of the ranchos and rural areas, which before now have seen little of either. The missions are financed by proceeds from Venezuela’s oil industry, control of which Chavez seized after the 2002 (another sore point for opponents), and which, against expectation, is humming along quite nicely. (Also worth noting: for all that he fulminates against “neo-liberalist” free trade, and for all that he has expanded the role of the state in Venezuela’s economy, Chavez’s economic policy is fairly eclectic: he’s pushed hard to have Venezuela admitted to Mercosur, the South American free trade bloc, and he’s an energetic courtier of foreign investment.)
That Chavez is genuinely popular in Venezuela, and increasingly throughout Latin America, is cause for neither surprise nor alarm, according to Richard Gott, whose book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution (Verso), recently updated and reissued, is the first account in English to place Chavez in historical and intellectual perspective. In Gott’s sympathetic account, Chavez is a magnetic personality of the Clintonian type, “a genuinely original figure in Latin America,” a radical left-wing nationalist, to be sure, but a pragmatic improviser, and certainly no dogmatic socialist. Chavez’s program for Venezuela remains somewhat vague, even to the man himself, but his concern for the country’s poor and marginalized is, in Gott’s view, sincere and his vocation is essentially democratic.
Gott, who has been reporting on Latin America for four decades, is a former correspondent and features editor for the London Guardian. He’s the author of Guerrilla Movements in Latin America and Cuba: A New History, among other books. He talked to Mother Jones recently by phone from his home in London.
Mother Jones: Does Chavez really think the U.S. is out to have him killed?
Richard Gott: You have to understand the fear that sweeps Latin America whenever a progressive government comes to power. Chavez has to take the possibility of assassination very seriously. He has now expressed his great solidarity with the Cuban revolution and gone so far as to say that if the United States were to invade Cuba then Venezuela would be at Cuba’s side. Even so, to my mind, the idea that the United States is planning to do assassinate him seems highly improbable. But I think for Chavez it’s a very real possibility.
MJ: Still, there’s clearly no love lost between Chavez and the United States government. Why does Chavez delight in provoking the Americans?
RG: Well, I think he gets out of it a lot of popularity at home. People in the United States tend not to appreciate how extremely disliked they are in much of the world and particularly in Latin America, for old-fashioned historical reasons. The United States has intervened all over Latin America for more than 100 years. They’re still in Cuba at the base in Guantanamo, since 1898. So there’s this tremendous legacy of hostility that’s absolutely open to any progressive regime to exploit.
MJ:And Pat Robertson’s recent comments—that the US should go ahead and take him out—presumably played into that hostility.
RG: Yes, it’s obviously very convenient when the United States lives up to its stereotype as a Big Brother that’s prone to intervene at any given moment. But when Chavez started six or seven years ago he didn’t have this fearsome anti-American rhetoric that he has today. He unleashes it today because he has good reason to believe the Americans knew about the coup in 2002 and didn’t do anything to warn him, or prevent it. So he gets a lot of mileage out of pushing a strongly anti-American line, and specifically an anti-Bush, anti-neoconservative line. But gets on well with Jimmy Carter and with Clinton—you know, with less extreme figures.
MJ: A big irritant for the United States, of course, is Chavez’s closeness to Fidel Castro. What should we make of that relationship?
RG: One tends to forget in the United States or in Europe how popular and significant Castro is for Latin America. He remains this extraordinary bulwark against the United States, and he’s regarded as the great Latin American figure of the 20th century. And Chavez belongs to a strand in Venezuelan life, and Latin American life, essentially of nationalism, and socialism, and support for the Cuban revolution, and he’s never made any secret of that. But of course he has no plans to emulate the particular Soviet form of the Cuban economy, or the particular form of Cuba’s political arrangements, which owe a lot to the fact that it’s under an embargo and in a sort of state of war. But he does appreciate Castro’s advice; they talk on the phone every night. They’re very, very close.
MJ: And the Cuban-exile lobby doesn’t take well to that …
RG: No. Anyone who is friendly to Cuba becomes an enemy of the Miami-Cuban mafia, and that’s what’s wagging the American policy towards Latin America. Chavez, who has teamed up with Castro on many many things, is implicitly just another enemy. But when you look at it—has Chavez expropriated American companies? No. Has he affected American business interests? No, he hasn’t. There’s still McDonald’s in Caracas, and you can still be an American businessman in Venezuela.
MJ: But it’s not just the Miami Cubans who dislike Chavez. The English-language media is pretty hostile towards him.
RG: Yes, that’s true. For example, the correspondents for the Economist and the Financial Times in Caracas during the Chavez era—it’s been the same guys throughout–are essentially disillusioned leftists of yesteryear who’ve moved over to the right. They’ve accepted the arguments of the opposition and have been endlessly critical of Chavez since the beginning, but always adopting the latest opposition line. And the opposition, which is essentially the Venezuelan elite, is now saying Chavez is moving to the left and he’s going to show his true socialist colors. Okay, it’s true that Chavez, for the first time this year, has used the word “socialism”—he talks about a “21st Century Socialism”—but he’s given absolutely no indication that he wants to emulate Soviet socialism, Cuban socialism, or indeed the sort of state capitalism that existed in Europe for much of the late 20th century.
MJ: Do you have a sense—for that matter, does he have a sense—of what he means by “21st century socialism”?
RG: No, I don’t think he does. He is keen on buzzwords like “participation,” he talks a lot about “participatory democracy,” but he hasn’t really fleshed out these ideas. He likes the idea that workers’ representatives should be on the boards of companies, which is quite an old-fashioned and interesting idea. But he’s not particularly interested in trade unions themselves becoming a significant force. He’s a very unusual leftist in the sense that he’s not much interested in trade unions or political parties.
MJ: Early on in the book you call him a “genuinely original figure” in Latin America. In what sense is he that?
RG: He certainly comes from an unusual background. It’s unusual to have a progressive military figure, although there have been half a dozen or so figures in the 20th century—[Omar] Torrijos, in Panama, for example—who emerged from the military and established progressive military regimes. What I find interesting about him is his open-mindedness and his willingness to experiment. He arrived on the scene without any dogmatic ideas. One of his principal heroes is Simon Rodriguez, this extraordinary 19th century figure who was Simon Bolivar’s tutor. He had this wonderful slogan that Latin America had to be “original.” He had a debate with Bolivar, who was a child of the European Enlightenment, influenced by the French Revolution, and who wanted to import a lot of those ideas into Latin America. Simon Rodriguez said, No, we can’t import them wholesale into Latin America; we have to think of original ways of dealing with the problems of our continent on our own. I think Chavez has taken that to heart. He’s always casting around for ideas. He’s one of the most open-minded Latin American leaders I’ve ever come across. Whenever you see him he says, “What’s new? What’s happening? What books should I be reading?”
MJ: And yet he very deliberately styles himself as an heir to Simon Bolivar, the great 19th century hero of Latin American independence. In what sense are Chavez and his project for Venezuela “Bolivarian”?
RG: I think he still recognizes the significance of the ideas of Bolivar. He’s more interested in culture than in economics. All leftist revolutions in the past have been based on an economic restructuring of society. Chavez isn’t so fascinated by that, but he is fascinated by the need for Latin America to reestablish its cultural identity outside of American cultural imperialism—everybody watching American TV and American movies. He’s saying No, we should be thinking about Latin America and thinking about our own culture. He’s set up a television channel called Vive, which is devoted to bringing aspects of Venezuelan culture to the screen. He has also promoted the television station Telesur, the idea being to have a Latin American perspective on the news, and he’s made a deal with Iran whereby Venezuelans are learning from the Iranians how to make cartoon films, in order to escape from the American idea that everything has to be Walt Disney.
MJ: Chavez remains popular in Venezuela. How is he viewed in Latin America more broadly?
RG: Yes, I think it’s changed significantly in the years he’s been in power. To begin with they didn’t really know what to make of him, and it took them quite a long time to figure out that he was a very serious and intelligent politician. I suppose, too, that after a while his capacity to survive in itself becomes impressive, and the fact that he has not only survived but continues to be high in the opinion polls, winning election after election, gives him added credibility in the rest of Latin America.
MJ: As you say, his resiliency has been extraordinary. How has he managed to survive—thrive, even?
RG: Well, two things are absolutely crucial. One is that he has the support of the great mass of the people, who are poor, and also black and Indian. There’s a really interesting racist element to politics in Venezuela, and in the rest of Latin America. So Chavez has this huge popularity among the poor, and he’s seen to be delivering. And even where he’s not delivering, they believe that he will. The other thing of course is that he has the absolutely solid backing of the armed forces. The coup in 2002 allowed him to fire 60 generals and to get rid of the entire upper reaches of the armed forces. So the people running the army today are absolutely unconditional supporters of Chavez. Not only that, he’s extremely popular with the troops, because they come from the poor and forgotten parts of the population, and Chavez always makes huge efforts to make sure he talks not just to the generals but also to the troops.
MJ: Of course Chavez is a former soldier himself. To what extent does that explain who he is and where he comes from?
RG: I think it’s very significant indeed. The Venezuelan military is unlike other militaries. They’ve often had relationships with the left. They are simply not the sort of generals with dark glasses that one associates with Chile and Argentina, say, and they tend to come not necessarily from the higher social strata, they often come from the provinces. It’s been quite a democratic army. They also in the 1970s and 1980s started studying at the universities and colleges, and became somewhat integrated into civilian life.
You have to bear in mind, too, that entire political structure of Venezuela has collapsed, the old political parties have disappeared, evaporated, and Chavez hasn’t really created much of a new organized political movement of his own. The bureaucracy is in the hands of the middle-class opposition, and it’s very difficult to get any sort of reform through the existing government machine, so Chavez does rely on the military to get things done, as his own political party.
MJ: The military aside, lacking an organized political movement he seems to hold on in part through sheer force of personality. Is there a danger that when he withdraws from the scene, voluntarily or not, his reforms and achievements will go with him?
RG: I think that’s a very legitimate question. Things are better from that point of view than they were four or five years ago. I think if Chavez had disappeared even two or three years ago, that would have been the end of that. I think now that things are becoming more organized, less chaotic, the regime looks stable, and people are beginning to join in on the grounds that this is going to last. For a long time members of the opposition said, we’re going to get rid of Chavez tomorrow, and so they waited till tomorrow came. But when that didn’t happen, I think a lot of people who weren’t particularly keen on Chavez are now beginning to realize that this is the government they’re going to have to deal with for the next ten years. And I think that if Chavez disappeared tomorrow, there are enough good, competent people, and that the system is now stable enough, and that it will continue. I think what is significant is that there has been a revolution, a collapse of the ancien regime, so it’s impossible to imagine going back to the system that existed before.
MJ: Not least because Chavez has brought into politics a large portion of the population—the poor—that wasn’t involved before.
RG: Yes, I think that may turn out to be Chavez’s most significant achievement. In a way that’s what made the old, elitist opposition unhappy — this democratization of the country, bringing in this underclass, even a lumpen class, into the body politic. A lot of the programs, the projects he’s developed—not just the health programs but the education programs, too—they’re really aimed at the 16-25 age group, the young people who weren’t getting into college or into training. He’s making sure that a huge amount of money will be spent on this one generation to get them into education, into work, and essentially into politics, because they’re the people who will ultimately decide the nature of the system.
MJ: Now, he’s able to make this huge investment because Venezuela is flush with oil money. What happens if and when that flow of money slows?
RG: Well, I don’t think the price of oil is going to come down in the foreseeable future, and anyway he is only trying to do this as a crash program for one generation. After that, Venezuelans will have to decide which direction to go in. But he will have a much larger group of motivated people than existed in the 20th century.
MJ: You talk about Chavez’s “new politics of oil.” What’s been his innovation there?
RG: First of all came the discovery, in the 1980s, that simply nationalizing the oil industry didn’t result in huge flows of money for development, for the simple reason that the people who took over the industry ran it the same way it had been run in the days of Shell and Exxon, when the money disappeared into speculation or into the hands of the directors. Chavez has completely altered the way the oil company is run, pointing out that the money ought to be invested in Venezuela.
MJ: It’s never healthy for an economy to rely to heavily on one industry, as Venezuela does on oil. Is the Chavez government working to diversify the economy?
RG: Absolutely. A lot depends on this new generation of people emerging, and then the possibility of investing in other activities. Chavez has the old, sort of 19th century belief in trying to develop the infrastructure all over the country, to try to reverse the movement of people from the countryside to the cities. And I think his scheme is to try to revive local economies and make the countryside more of a pole of development so that people don’t endlessly drift into the cities, which is of course the bane of the whole of Latin America, not just Venezuela.
MJ: So, Chavez came into office promising radical reform—a Bolivarian revolution. Has he delivered?
RG: I think the jury is still out on the entire project. It’s extremely open-ended as to where it’s going to go, and I’m sure it’s going to change and develop in time. Chavez is a very pragmatic leader who’s moving forward gradually on a number of fronts but doesn’t have any kind of blueprint for the eventual organization of society in Venezuela. For example, on two or three cases they’ve taken over factories that have collapsed and the workers have demanded that they should be taken over. I don’t think that’s the model, but it’s happening. So I think there’ll be a sort of pluralism of different projects, some cooperative, some state-owned, some privately owned. That’s more or less what’s happening at the moment and I expect that to continue. I think that because they depend so much on oil and it takes time to develop alternative economic activities it remains to be seen how all that will work.
MJ: Have the poor and historically disenfranchised seen real gains under Chavez?
RG: They’ve seen a large amount in terms of health and education in the shanty towns. That is very visible, and it’s extraordinary. And the ones who haven’t got it yet know about it and they’re waiting for it and agitating for it to arrive. So, for example, I went to a shanty town outside Caracas next two or three months ago and nothing had happened, and they were extremely anxious for it to happen. They were sending protest demonstrations to the local mayor asking, when are the Cuban doctors going to come, and when is the education scheme going to reach our village. They are very well aware that improvements are in the offing and that they’re going to come, though they obviously haven’t got everywhere yet. I think the employment program is still in its infancy; getting people into jobs—that still has a long way to go.
MJ: The standard US line on Chavez is that his instincts are essentially autocratic. What do you make of that?
RG: I think it’s entirely invented. It’s true that he is a military figure who expects his orders to be obeyed. The two items that are endlessly picked on by the opposition are [his reforms of] the media and the judiciary. The judiciary was an unbelievable mess under the ancien regime. It has been reformed, they have managed to get control of it, and I think you’d expect any government to do that if it’s building on the ruins of the past. You’re not going to get a situation where the corrupt judges of the past have an influence over the system. You can call it raison d’etat if you like, but it seems to me to be a perfectly understandable measure for the government to take. I seem to remember that Franklin D. Roosevelt did something similar in the 1930s.
The complaint about the media law is a completely ridiculous red herring. All they’ve done is introduce some legislation that’s probably less repressive than what we have in Western Europe. It’s really the modern way of introducing a certain amount of regulation into television in a world that had hitherto been totally unbridled. And indeed anyone knows who’s been there the media are having a field day and are about 80 percent anti-Chavez. So there isn’t much to complain about there.
MJ: If Chavez’s revolution succeeds, what do you think Venezuela look like ten years from now?
RG: I think Venezuela will be a model for the rest of Latin America—a society that’s come to terms with its black and indigenous poverty-stricken populations, and where those populations participate fully in the democratic process. Because it’s a new generation it’s a little open-ended as to what will happen, but Chavez recognizes that. He says “Let the people decide,” and I think he means it.