Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chavez marks Venezuela independence, foes unhappy

Chavez marks Venezuela independence, foes unhappy

By Andrew Cawthorne
Reuters
Sunday, April 18, 2010; 2:43 PM
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez kicked off a national party on Sunday for the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence, but critics used the date to accuse him of turning the nation into a Cuban-style dictatorship.

The socialist leader -- who casts himself as the heir to 19th century South American independence leader Simon Bolivar -- was due to welcome fellow leftist heads of state, including Cuba's Raul Castro and Bolivia's Evo Morales, during the day.

On Monday, exactly 200 years after Venezuela's initial declaration of independence from Spain, the leaders of the Chavez-led ALBA alliance of nations are to hold a summit in Caracas amid celebrations across the nation.

"We are just a few hours away from the great party," Chavez wrote. "Happy commemoration of 200 years of struggle. Fatherland, Socialism or Death! We will overcome!"



As well as adopting the language of his friend and mentor Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president, Chavez has likewise presented his 11-year rule as a chance for Venezuela to finally achieve true independence after decades of capitalist rule.

The Venezuelan socialist, who came to prominence in a failed 1992 coup and then won power at the ballot-box six years later, has taken over Fidel Castro's role as the continent's leading critic of U.S. power.

Street-parties and special events were beginning all over Venezuela on Sunday. Armies of workers and volunteers -- dressed in the red T-shirts and caps of Chavez supporters -- swarmed over Caracas, sprucing up streets and buildings ahead of a military parade and other events planned for Monday.

Opponents, who have only beaten Chavez once in about a dozen votes since 1998, fumed as they saw him turn the anniversary into a massive show of support for his government.

Some supporters of the "First Justice" party rallied at a Caracas square for an alternative "independence declaration".

"After 200 years, we are again under an odious foreign domination," its leader Julio Borges said, accusing Chavez of an "indignant submission" to the Castro brothers. "The freedom fighters 200 years ago did not fight for ... dictatorship."

"CHAVISTA TO THE CORE"

Thousands of Cubans are working with the Chavez government, deployed in shanty-town medical clinics and sports training centers and delicate areas such as security agencies and energy projects.

Chavez supporters view that as a model of international cooperation, while critics say it breaches sovereignty.

Former Venezuelan president Carlos Andres Perez, whom Chavez failed to oust in 1992, also weighed in.

"It is not possible to celebrate when a militarized, authoritarian and pro-Communist regime, headed by a murderous coup-monger, has kidnapped the nation," he said.

Perez even compared Chavez to Hitler in his buildup of a pro-government militia. The training of teenage "communications guerrillas" -- to counter the anti-Chavez push of private media -- has divided Venezuelan opinion this week.

Chavez and his critics are building up to a September assembly vote, where opposition parties hope to cut into the government's majority and show his popularity is waning.

Though opinion polls are difficult to follow in Venezuela, due to accusations of political bias, it is clear Chavez's popularity has fallen in the last year, from more than 60 percent to about 50 percent or less.

That, however, is still a relatively high rating and enough to help him win in September, analysts say. Venezuela's poor majority give Chavez high marks for social policies including free clinics and schools, and subsidized food networks.

"This idea that Chavez is losing approval and is on the way out is absolute rubbish," said pensioner Edith Valencia, eating at a state-run "socialist pancake" shop in Caracas.

"We admit not everything is perfect and it is a tough year, we even admit he has made some mistakes. But will we vote for him? You bet! I am a Chavista to the core."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko -- both recent visitors to Venezuela -- sent congratulations for the 200th anniversary.

Chavez is seeking to strengthen global ties that work against U.S. dominance and would have been hosting Chinese President Hu Jintao this weekend were it not for a major earthquake in western China.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chavez will celebrate anniversary with summit


Waste money, why don't you?

CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will celebrate 10 years in power next week by holding a rare summit with some of his closest leftist allies in Latin America.

Venezuelans will be asked in February whether or not Hugo Chavze should be allowed to run for a third term.

Attending will be leaders or representatives from a group called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas, better known as ALBA. Chavez and his allies started the group a few years ago in attempt, they said, to counterbalance United States influence in Latin America.

Chavez announced the gathering Monday on state-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela, commonly called RNV. He called it "an extraordinary summit of ALBA ."

Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and Dominican Republic Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit will attend, RNV said on its Web site.

Cuban President Raul Castro will not be there because he is on a trip to Asia, El Universal newspaper said.

At ALBA's latest meeting in Caracas in November, the leaders began discussion on the creation of common currency throughout the region, El Universal said. Officials talked about creating a currency called a "Sucre," a Spanish acronym for "Unified System of Regional Compensation." Sucre is also the constitutional capital of Bolivia, where the Supreme Court meets, and the main currency in Ecuador.

A meeting scheduled for mid-December to discuss regional economic integration was canceled, the newspaper said.

Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, six years after a failed coup attempt to depose then-President Carlos Andres Perez. He was sworn in on February 2, 1999.

He was re-elected in a special election in July 2000 after a new constitution was adopted and again in 2006.

The new constitution limits him to two consecutive six-year terms, but the Venezuelan congress recently approved a referendum for February 15 that would allow Chavez to run for a third term in 2012. Venezuelans narrowly rejected a similar measure in a December 2007 referendum.

Chavez has been campaigning hard in favor of the referendum.

Bolivians approved a new constitution Sunday that will allow that nation's president, Morales, to run for another five-year term in December

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Chavez's Charities aren't what they seem and Che Guevara Myth

It is not Chavez's Charities........ because is not Chavez's money. It is our venezuelans money.
vdebate reporter
Chavez's Charities Aren't What They Seem
Hugo Chavez hoped his social-service projects--funded with revenue from the national oil company--would help him win a constitutional referendum. The reality, however, is that Chavez's "missions" are proven disasters--both economically and politically, according to Alvaro Vargas Llosa, director of the Independent Institute's Center on Global Prosperity. Mercal, a mission ostensibly devoted to subsidizing food for the poor, is rife with corruption, with government workers stealing the food and selling it for higher prices on the black market. Barria Adentro, a medical mission supported by Fidel Castro, has lost 60 percent of its Cuban doctors to desertion.
"It would seem that many of the Cubans were pursing emigration rather than altruism when they traveled to Venezuela to help Chavez establish Barrio Adentro," writes Vargas Llosa in his latest column for the Washington Post Writers Group.
The Chavez administration claimed that Mercal and Barria Adentro reached 70 percent of Venezuela's poor. But two researchers with no particular axe to grind, Yolanda D'Elia and Luis Francisco Cabezas, found that at its peak in 2004, Barrio Adentro reached no more than 30 percent. "Today, it reaches no more than one in five poor Venezuelans, while six of every 10 citizens supposedly fed by Mercal are not really benefiting from that program." Price controls and inflation have made chicken, meat, eggs, and milk a hard-to-find luxury. Many supermarkets have been forced to close. And Venezuelans have had to turn to stores that do not participate in the Mercal program. Chavez, Vargas Llosa concludes, vastly over promised and vastly under delivered.

Also of note, in a recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Vargas Llosa criticized an article that underreported the number of executions committed by Che Guevara. "While it is true that he executed hundreds 'from the Batista regime,' he also executed people not connected to the regime," he wrote. "Javier Arzuaga, the Basque chaplain who served at 'La Cabaña' [prison] at the time, told me that among the 800 prisoners there were some journalists, businessmen and merchants."
"Mission Not Accomplished," by Alvaro Vargas Llosa (7/16/08) Spanish Translation
"Che Guevara Was No Hero to the Many He Abused," by Alvaro Vargas Llosa (Wall Street Journal, 7/2/08) Spanish Translation
Purchase Lessons from the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, edited by Alvaro Vargas Llosa.
"Lessons from the Poor shows that the mightiest soldiers in the war on poverty are poor people themselves.... The message of the book is profoundly hopeful--as governments remove obstacles to entrepreneurship, there is much potential for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty."--William R. Easterly, Professor of Economics and Director, Development Research Institute, New York University
Purchase The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa
"The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty is a timely and masterful critical piece on the Left's heroic figure and on the Latin America he tried to change but only made worse in the process. Che Guevara has become a myth to many around the world who really do not understand or know who this man was all about. Alvaro Vargas Llosa exposes the real Che with the facts of who he really was. He takes off the beret, the cigar, the façade of the handsome revolutionary figure and exposes the violent, unjust, and arbitrary side of the real Che. More importantly, Vargas Llosa puts his demystification of Che in the context of what has gone wrong with Latin America in the past decades."--
V. Manuel Rocha, former U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia and Argentina

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Chávez says he chews coca daily

Chávez says he chews coca daily

Analysts said Chávez's comments before National Assembly amounted to a dangerous endorsement and might be an admission of an illegal act.

Sun, Jan. 20, 2008
BY CASTO OCANDO
El Nuevo Herald


Venezuela's controversial President Hugo Chávez has revealed that he regularly consumes coca -- the source of cocaine -- raising questions about the legality of his actions.

Chávez's comments on coca initially went almost unnoticed, coming amid a four-hour speech to the National Assembly during which he made international headlines by calling on other countries to stop branding two leftist Colombian guerrilla groups as terrorists and instead recognize them as ``armies.''

''I chew coca every day in the morning . . . and look how I am,'' he is seen saying on a video of the speech, as he shows his biceps to the audience.

Chávez, who does not drink alcohol, added that just as Fidel Castro ''sends me Coppelia ice cream and a lot of other things that regularly reach me from Havana,'' Bolivian President Evo Morales ``sends me coca paste . . . I recommend it to you.''

It was not clear what Chávez meant. Indigenous Bolivians and Peruvians can legally chew coca leaves as a mild stimulant and to kill hunger. But coca paste is a semi-refined product -- between leaves and cocaine -- considered highly addictive and often smoked as basuco or pitillo.

''It is another symptom that [Chávez] has totally lost the concept of limits,'' said Aníbal Romero, a political scientist with the Caracas Metropolitan University. ``It shows Chávez is a man out of control.''

More seriously, Venezuelan and Bolivian analysts said Chávez's comments amount to a dangerous endorsement of a substance controlled around the world, and perhaps even an illegal act by a very public head of state.

''If he is affirming that he consumes coca paste, he is admitting that he is consuming a substance that is illegal in Bolivia as well as Venezuela,'' said Hernán Maldonado, a Bolivian analyst living in Miami. ''Plus, it's an accusation that Evo Morales is a narco-trafficker'' for sending him the paste.

Morales is the longtime head of a Bolivian coca-growers' union and is known to chew coca in public, even during cabinet meetings, since he took office. Bolivia limits the coca acreage in an effort to control supplies of coca leaf that wind up being refined into cocaine.

Most likely, however, it seems Chávez was referring to chewing coca leaves, a traditional and legal practice among indigenous groups in the high Andes mountains but illegal in Venezuela, according to experts.

''Venezuela signed the Vienna Convention of 1961, which regulates everything that has to do with narcotics,'' said Mildred Camero, former president of the government's main counter-narcotics agency, the National Council Against the Illicit Use of Drugs. ``On the list . . . the coca leaf was prohibited.''

Although the growing and chewing of coca leaf is legal in Bolivia, Morales ''should explain the shipments he sends to Chávez,'' said Carlos Sánchez-Berzaín, a Morales critic and former Bolivian interior minister now living in Miami.

''The [Bolivian] government should declare how it sends the coca, how much it sends, with what frequency, the weight, in what type of container, because it is a controlled substance and the government must be monitored,'' Sánchez-Berzaín said.

This is not the first time that the president praised the properties of coca leaves. During a visit to a communal kitchen in western Caracas in early 2006, with Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez, Chávez suggested using the kitchen's ovens to bake bread made from a special coca-based flour.

''We could try that here, as part of that effort to de-Satanize a product that our indigenous people have been producing for centuries,'' he said.

In early 2007, Venezuela signed an agreement to buy 4,000 tons of coca leaf from Bolivia in what it said was an effort to diminish the supply available for refining paste and cocaine and launch the manufacture of food and medicinal products on an industrial scale.

Caracas made the first payment of $500,000, but the project remains frozen, in large part because of the legal implications of shipping the leaves across borders.

Although coca leaves have nutritional and medical characteristics, ''the principal component is an alkaloid, cocaine,'' that can be ''harmful'' if it's made part of a daily diet, Nancy Siles, a biochemist with the Bolivian College of Biochemistry and Pharmacy, wrote in a a recent report.

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

The King of Venezuela

"Most remarkably, inequality and corruption have, by most measures, gotten marginally worse. From here on, with all his enemies vanquished, Chávez will have no one but himself to blame for the empty promises of his revolution."


By DANIEL KURTZ-PHELAN
Published: October 7, 2007
When Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, most of the world heeded the advice of the American ambassador in Caracas: “Watch what Chávez does, not what he says.”

On the campaign trail, Chávez had railed against liberal economics, the Venezuelan elite and United States influence in Latin America. He had shown himself to be a savvy political performer who would intersperse off-color jokes and prankish gimmicks among proclamations of a “revolution” that would wipe out the old political leadership — the “corruptocracy,” as he put it. Ignore all that, the ambassador’s line went. Despite the bluster, Chávez's actions would turn out to be fairly moderate.
The opposite advice would have been more helpful: everything Chávez said he would do, he has eventually done.

While gleefully playing the buffoon, he has dismantled and refashioned most of Venezuela’s political institutions, taken control of its crucial industries (oil, most importantly) and rewritten its Constitution — twice.

He has used headline-grabbing rhetoric, aggressive diplomacy and petrodollars to become one of the most famous political figures in the world. And he has recently set about abolishing term limits so he can stay in power as long as is necessary to build “21st-century socialism” in Venezuela.

Donald Rumsfeld has likened Chávez to Hitler; Chávez has likened himself to Jesus Christ.
His ability to make opponents underestimate him has always been one of Chávez's essential weapons.

Just six years before becoming president, he was an unknown lieutenant colonel whose frequent talk of rebellion was dismissed as messianic delusion. When an intelligence report warned of an imminent Chávez-led coup, Venezuela’s defense minister scoffed, and the report’s author was ordered to undergo a psychiatric exam. Weeks later, Chávez tried to overthrow the government, failing but nonetheless turning himself into a national celebrity.
Two new Chávez biographies, “Hugo Chávez,” by the Venezuelan journalists Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, and “¡Hugo!,” by a Newsday reporter and former Associated Press correspondent, Bart Jones, set out to explain how Chávez turned himself into the international figure he has become, and why.

Where they differ is on the question of underlying motivation. For Marcano and Barrera, Chávez's drive is explained mostly by megalomania — by the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power,” as their epigraph (from Hobbes) puts it. For Jones, it is explained by selfless outrage at the injustices of the world. Chávez may have an apparently unquenchable thirst for power, Jones concedes, but only because he needs it to triumph over the enemies of the people.
In interviews, Chávez has said he never imagined he would become president. But Marcano and Barrera’s meticulous, finely detailed account (in an updated, inelegant translation of a book published in Spanish in 2004) shows that he saw himself as a heroic figure long before anyone knew who he was. They gained access to Chávez himself and to scores of people who have known him, as well as to two decades’ worth of his personal diaries and letters (given to them by a former Chávez girlfriend). By the time Chávez was 19, a military cadet fresh from the impoverished Venezuelan interior, he was already talking to friends about saving the homeland. “I hope,” he wrote in his diary, “that one day I will be the one to bear the responsibility of an entire nation.”
Within a few years, the young Chávez was feverishly organizing revolutionary cells and fusing Marx, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Simón Bolívar into “a rudimentary amalgam of leftist ideas.” To some this may have seemed farcical, but Chávez was waiting for his main chance — the moment when mounting disaffection with an underperforming and vastly inequitable political and economic system would open the way for a boisterous military man promising to tear the whole structure down. Those cells later became an important power base for Chávez, and that “rudimentary amalgam” a framework for his “21st-century socialism.”
Marcano and Barrera propose a few explanations for Chávez's undeniable popular appeal. Venezuela’s combination of extensive oil resources and widespread poverty — a combination sadly common in petrostates — has long offered an opening for a people’s “avenger.” (It was a Venezuelan who first called oil “the devil’s excrement.”) “If there is one thing the president has most successfully communicated,” Marcano and Barrera write, “it is that he cares about people.” They also note the popularity of his social-welfare “missions.” Unfortunately, their enmity toward Chávez prevents them from fully conveying his savior-of-the-people charisma.
Jones does so much more successfully, in part because he is caught up in it himself. (At points, he veers into outright hagiography, admiringly quoting Chávez's poetry and going out of his way to excuse Chávez's rumored womanizing as the typical behavior of a Venezuelan man.) "Chávez's rise,” Jones writes, “represented the first time in the country’s history that the dark-skinned impoverished majority was seizing power. After decades, even centuries, of running the country like their own personal hacienda, the elites’ grip on the corruption-riddled and exploitative system was suddenly undone.”

Jones certainly captures the adulation of Venezuelans who view Chávez as a hero. Like Chávez and his most ardent supporters, Jones sees almost all criticism of the president as driven by “frustration, paranoia, classism ... racism and loss of power.” Although that is true of some of the more hysterical charges against Chávez, even the more measured criticisms — about his tendency to rule by decree and dismantle checks on executive power, for example — are, in Jones’s telling, just the baseless hypocrisy of opponents with sinister motives.
Jones is right, however, in describing those opponents, in both Venezuela and Washington, as inept.

Business leaders tried to unseat Chávez by shutting down the economy with a general strike and ended up giving him an excuse to kick them out of the oil industry just as prices were going through the roof. The political opposition tried to overthrow him in a 2002 coup and ended up discrediting itself as an enemy of democracy. United States officials denounced Chávez as a “hyena” and a “negative force in the region,” and ended up legitimating him as a proud Latin American nationalist bravely standing up to United States imperialism. As Jones makes clear, Chávez has won every confrontation he has been involved in.
In 2002, after the White House ham-handedly praised the short-lived coup in Caracas as a victory for democracy, Chávez issued a public challenge to President Bush. Waving a dollar bill in the air, he proposed to bet which of them would last longer in office. Now that Chávez has outmaneuvered or outlasted almost every one of his opponents, it is a wager that he is all but certain to win. He has suggested 2030 as the year when he might consider his revolution complete — a revolution that, Jones writes, is certain to alter the landscape of Venezuela and of Latin America.
In fact, much less has changed, for better or for worse, than Chávez's brash declarations and outsize profile would suggest. Chávez is not the bold revolutionary who has turned back the tide of history; nor is he the evil-genius dictator who has subverted democracy and the market throughout the hemisphere.

Despite his many well-financed, willfully provocative diplomatic initiatives in the region and elsewhere, the actual results of his foreign policy have been paltry: most of Latin America has accepted his money without embracing Chávez as a leader or a model. Within Venezuela, unemployment remains high, poverty has fallen only with rises in the price of oil (just as it has in past oil booms), and the main human-development indicators are little changed. Most remarkably, inequality and corruption have, by most measures, gotten marginally worse. From here on, with all his enemies vanquished, Chávez will have no one but himself to blame for the empty promises of his revolution.




Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.


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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gustavo Coronel: A possible political scenario for Latin America, 2007-2012

Gustavo Coronel: A possible political scenario for Latin America, 2007-2012

Most of the political scenarios for Latin America are drawn in traditional ways, using mostly politically correct ingredients. Because of this cautious approach some possible futures for the region remain insufficiently discussed. One of them has to do with the region becoming the site of active destabilizing plots against the United States. We all know that anti-American sentiment in Latin America has been growing during the last ten years, although not as strongly as advertised by some interested parties. In fact, Latinobarometro and Pew, two credible polling agencies dealing with the Western Hemisphere have recently shown (1) that, even in Venezuela, the U.S. is viewed favorably by over 55% of the population and that the attacks of President Hugo Chavez against this country are rejected by 75% of the population.

Still, there is no doubt that there are strong efforts being made by some Latin American political leaders to harass the United States. If these efforts intensify and take root, Latin America could become a geopolitical hot spot in the mid-term.

The starting point of the anti-U.S. Alliance.

Essentially the current threats against U.S. national security originated about nine years ago with the political alliance between Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator and Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman. This is a symbiotic relationship that has been providing Fidel Castro with money and Hugo Chavez with brains.

The strategy chosen by this alliance is based on two facts and one very partial truth. The two facts are: extreme poverty and extreme inequality in the region. The very partial truth is that these two afflictions are the result of U.S. exploitation of the region’s natural resources aided by the systematic political intervention of this country in the internal affairs of the countries of the hemisphere. To blame our own misfortunes and inadequacies on someone else has been an old and proven method to gain adepts and to stir hate and xenophobia among Latin American societies. This is what Fidel Castro has done for the last forty years and this is what he has recommended to Hugo Chavez , a line of action that the Venezuelan strongman has embraced with enthusiasm.

Hugo Chavez’s strategies.

To do this he has been aided by significant amounts of money derived from oil exports. During the last nine years about $220 billion of oil money have entered the Venezuelan national treasury while national debt has tripled to about $65 billion.

This amount of money has been mostly spent in three areas: (a), social programs of a temporary nature, really handouts, to the Venezuelan poor; (b), the acquisition of weapons; and (c), subsidies, donations and promises to Latin American countries in order to consolidate political alliances and establish political IOU’s. At least $40 billion have gone into the third category, an amount roughly equivalent to 2-3% of Venezuela’s yearly GDP during the last nine years.

As a result of these strategies the Fidel Castro/Hugo Chavez axis has been able to make some progress in its political objectives of eroding the political standing of the United States in the hemisphere and, even, of gaining supporters in the U.S. political scene. By financing the presidential campaigns in several countries they have been able to help Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa win the presidencies of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. At the same time they saw their favored candidates Ollanta Humala, in Peru, and Andres Lopez Obrador, in Mexico lose close elections while remaining politically strong, especially Lopez Obrador. In parallel Hugo Chavez’s major injection of money into Argentina has helped President Nestor Kirchner to join the anti-U.S. club, a move for which he did not need strong incentives.

This is all well known although generally perceived with indifference, sympathy, and tolerance or, even, amusement, in hemispheric political circles. Many celebrate secretly the harassment of such a strong power by smaller, weaker countries.

Others are sitting on the political fence, receiving political and material benefits by playing one side against the other. Still others have a weak spot in their ideological hearts for authoritarian regimes and resent the hard sale of democracy being done by the U.S. all over the world. A few even laugh at the colorful antics of President Chavez and have a hard time taking him seriously.

However, political harassment of the United States represents just one aspect in a possible wider plan. Later stages might include actual economic aggression and, even, physical action against the northern “empire”. For the time being the main efforts are directed towards the consolidation of the alliance. To do this:

• Chavez is providing money to members of the Armed Forces of Bolivia and to city mayors, in order to increase political control over these important Bolivian sectors (2);

• Chavez could be funneling money into Argentina to promote the candidacy of Mrs. Cristina Kirchner (3);

• The aid given by Chavez to Nicaragua already amounts to about $500 million and, if he follows through in his promise, will include the financing of a $2 billion refinery;

• The economic ties of Venezuela and Ecuador are increasing via the oil industry, although President Correa’s ideology already includes a significant component of resentment against the United States.

• Chavez is conducting a strategy of alignment with political sectors in the United States that oppose the current government policies. For some of these sectors the desire to erode the current administration has proven greater than their love for democracy. The enemy of their enemy has become their friend (4).
Almost all of these strategic initiatives by the Castro/Chavez alliance show an alternative, unfavorable outcome.

• Bolivia is in the threshold of a major political crisis, due to the reluctance of important sectors of the country to roll over and play dead to Morales’s pretensions to impose the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly model that ended with the Venezuelan democracy becoming an authoritarian regime.

• Mrs. Kirchner, even if she won, as it seems to be the case, might decide to go her separate ways. She has already given some indications that Argentina should not become a simple pawn of Castro/ Chavez in the struggle for hemispheric political leadership. Recent events have convinced her that Chavez’s support probably represents a kiss of death for her political future.

• In Ecuador, Correa is already looking at the Bolivian political turmoil with caution, as he does not want to repeat Morales’s errors and realizes that Chavez’s success in Venezuela has been due to his deep pockets rather than his charisma. Correa does not have the money or the charisma of Chavez.

• In the United States the individuals and groups that support Chavez are doing so out of personal material or political interest and have been largely rejected by public opinion.

It seems improbable that the alliance of these countries, almost entirely based on money and resentment against the United States, could last for long.
What if this alliance falters?

The main motors of the anti-U. S alliance, Castro and Chavez, understand that this strategy of progressive political harassment of the United States might not succeed. The defeat of Lopez Obrador in Mexico robbed them of a major ally in this strategy. In power Lopez Obrador would have promoted illegal immigration into the U.S. creating numerous points of social and political conflict along the weak U.S.- Mexican border. As it stands today The United States has several ways to weaken Castro/Chavez strategies. In fact, the imminent death of Fidel Castro has practically eliminated much of the brain component of this axis. Hugo Chavez is in need of an alternative plan.

The alternative is an alliance with fundamentalist groups or countries that share Hugo Chavez’s resentment against the United States. This explains the approximation of Hugo Chavez to Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Both leaders have an anti-U.S. global alliance as one of their main objectives. Their main weapon is oil or, rather, what they can do to the international oil market, in case they decided to suspend exports of this resource. Some 4 million barrels of oil per day would be out of the supply system, causing a major disruption in the world’s economy. They figure that in such a situation they have less to lose than the United States and its industrialized allies.

But oil is not their only weapon. They also have a political weapon to resort to. It has to do with the concerted action of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and FARC, assisted by violent indigenous groups such as those in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and socially turbulent groups like the illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

By promoting the action of these groups against the United States and its Latin American and European allies these groups can do much harm to global political stability. In this scenario one the main promoters of this action would not be located in the Middle East or in the Far East but in Latin America. This would be the first time in history, as far as we can tell, that a Latin American political leader becomes a major threat to world stability.

In summary.

Political scenarios based on traditional assumptions such as the existence of a dormant and orderly hemisphere and on the existence of international bodies like the Organization of American States, where political controversies and imbalances can be rather easily adjusted, do no longer seem to fit Latin American reality. Violent scenarios with global implications should also be considered. Scenarios are not only attempts at visualizing the future but, also, warning signals that will serve to act now, in order to mold desired outcomes.

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President

Outside Venezuela, few people know who Hugo Chavez really is and how he got to be president. Read this bio to learn more.

September 1, 2007
BOOK EXCERPT
'Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President' By Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka


CHAPTER 1 The Revolution Has Arrived

On the night of december 6, 1998, a large crowd gathered in front of the Teatro Teresa Carreño, close to the center of Caracas. The atmosphere was festive. Moments earlier, the National Electoral Council had read the first official bulletin of the day's election results. With 64 percent of the votes counted, there was no longer room for doubt. Fifty-six percent of the Venezuelan electorate had voted for Hugo Chávez, while his principal opponent, Henrique Salas Römer, a coalition candidate representing the traditional political parties, had garnered only 39 percent of the vote. Venezuela now had a new president, a man who had tried to reach the presidency scarcely six years earlier by attempting to overthrow the government. What had been unattainable by military uprising in 1992 became reality via the democratic process. He was not a career politician, nor did he have any experience in the public sector. And he was barely forty-four years old, much younger than the average age of the presidents who had preceded him. Invoking the memory of the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar, Chávez vowed to end corruption and democratize the oil business, and he expressed his dream of a country free of poverty. And from deep within the shadows, he dragged out one of Latin America's mustiest ghosts: revolution.

Though on the surface it may have seemed otherwise, December 6, 1998, marked the fulfillment of a deeply rooted obsession of the newly elected president. As his childhood friend Federico Ruiz recalls, on December 31 of 1982 or 1983, Hugo Chávez decided to take a day trip from the city of Maracay to Barinas, some 525 kilometers from Caracas, to visit their mothers and give their families a surprise New Year's hug. Five hours there and five hours back, at least. "It was just the two of us, in a Dodge Dart he had, passing a bottle of rum back and forth," Ruiz recalls. Of their very lengthy conversations, one moment remains crystal clear in Ruiz's memory. "He said, 'You know something? One day I'm going to be president of the republic.' And I said, 'Damn! Well, you can name me minister of, of . . . I don't know!' And then we joked around about it." Clarifying that this was not an idle comment made during a lull in the conversation nor due to an alcohol-infused bravado, Ruiz adds, "Hugo was very serious when he said that."

Of course he was serious. He was dead serious. This wasn't the first time the idea had popped into his friend's head. As a nineteen-year-old cadet in the military academy, Chávez had marched in a procession shortly after Carlos Andrés Pérez had been elected to his first term as president of the republic (1974–79). The moment established an unforeseen link between the two men, though it is entirely probable that Pérez walked past the young Chávez without giving him a second thought. Why on earth would Pérez have bothered to think that this cadet, who hadn't even graduated from the military academy, would one day conspire against him during his second term as president by staging a violent military coup against his government? How on earth could Pérez have ever imagined that this young soldier would become president of Venezuela one day? Young Hugo, on the other hand, had a very different experience of this moment. On March 13, 1974, he wrote in his diary, "After waiting a long time, the new president finally arrived. When I see him I hope that one day I will be the one to bear the responsibility of an entire Nation, the Nation of the great Bolívar."

Twenty-four years later, he had finally done it. Most Venezuelans, however, were probably not aware of the fervent determination that had driven him for so long. Chávez had taken care not to publicize these aspirations. In a 1999 interview, Mempo Giardinelli and Carlos Monsiváis, two renowned Latin American writers, asked him, "Did you ever imagine that you would be sitting here today, in the presidency and in the seat of power?" Chávez's simple response: "No, never. Never." Perhaps, on this December 6, the deeply personal meaning of this achievement was something he would celebrate on his own, for Venezuela was celebrating something else entirely: the triumph of antipolitics. The people of Venezuela had brought an outsider to the presidency, delivering a severe blow to the traditional political machine. A substantial sector of the middle class, fed up with the incompetence and corruption of the previous administrations, had fashioned a kind of revenge through the figure of this former military officer and coup leader. The media, dedicated as always to criticizing anything and everything in politics, were satisfied. The poor also identified with this message of "getting even," with this man who spoke of Venezuela's age-old debt to those who had always been excluded from the system. Chávez's victory, in this sense, was a new version of an old product, wrapped up in a bright, shiny package: Great Venezuela, the kingdom of magical liquid wealth;
the paradise from which so many Venezuelans had felt themselves marginalized; the fantasy of instant success.

The candidate representing an alliance known as the Patriotic Pole won the election with an unprecedented majority. According to the final count, he earned 56.44 percent of the vote. But who was Hugo Chávez, really? Where did he come from? Where was he going? How would his dreams and those of his country merge into one? On that victorious night in Caracas, after his rivals and the official institutions had formally acknowledged him as the new president-elect of Venezuela, this is what he had to say: "My dear friends: very simply, what happened today had to happen. As Jesus said, 'It is accomplished. What had to be accomplished was accomplished.' " And beneath the long shadow of the early dawn hour in Caracas, Chávez began to sing the national anthem.

Scarcely six years earlier, when Hugo Chávez had appeared on television to claim responsibility for attempting to overthrow the government, all his family could possibly feel were shock and embarrassment. At that time, nobody thought that Hugo Chávez was on his way to a meteoric political career. One of his friends from secondary school said, "It's something very difficult to digest. You have to take into account the significance of never having been a councilman, a congressman, a [political] leader, never having been a goddamn thing in politics . . . and then suddenly ending up president."

Indeed, nothing indicated that this would be Hugo's destiny. Many people probably would have said that simply being born in Sabaneta was a great disadvantage. On the other hand, it was also the ideal beginning of a grand myth, that of the humble man who rises to achieve untold powers—a potent, emotional dream for anyone with a melodramatic vision of history. There may have been presidents before Chávez who had risen to the pinnacle of power from simple, humble beginnings—in fact, none of the presidents from Venezuela's democratic age had come from Caracas. Just like Chávez, all of them had come from the provinces—the majority from poor families, as well. Yet Hugo Chávez, the first one from Barinas, in the far reaches of the Venezuelan plain, was the first president to transform his geographic circumstances into a symbol.

Regionalism is a tricky thing. The simple recipes that use geographic ingredients to define cultural traits are so very easy to believe and are repeated over and over again: people who live near the ocean or sea are open, honest, spontaneous people, whereas those who hail from the Andes, who live in the cold, vertical silence of the mountains, are taciturn, withdrawn. These kinds of classifications are hard to avoid. According to the Venezuelan stereotype, the llanero, the man from the plains, is a reserved, skeptical type who, once you break the ice, reveals himself to be a loyal, talkative person who loves to tell a good story. They say that there is something about the plains, with their converging horizons and interminable, flat terrain, that produces an odd combination of silences and long musical corridos, filled with protracted screams and counterpoints. It is a territory that is also a climate of the interior, a place where cattle, ghosts, horses, and apparitions
coexist.

Manuel Díaz, also known as "Venenito"—Little Poison—worked for some thirty years as a chemistry teacher at the Daniel Florencio O'Leary secondary school in Barinas, where Hugo Chávez was his student. According to Díaz, the llaneros "are hard to understand. They are very suspicious people. Always thinking about what people want from them. But once they know you, they are genuine. . . . They offer their friendship when they see that it is reciprocal." He also adds another bit of insight: "They are marked by machismo. The man is the one who does everything." According to a common maxim that the people of the plains often use to describe themselves, "The llanero is as great as the task he sees in front of him." Obviously, there is nothing terribly specific about this refrain: a multitude of regional identities could easily jibe with this definition.

Of all Venezuelan presidents, however, Chávez has most consistently invoked the spirit of the region from which he comes, frequently peppering his speeches with personal anecdotes, cultural references, and songs relating to the plains and its inhabitants. He loves to regale his public with childhood memories, and when he speaks of his retirement, he talks about going back to his roots and spending his golden years on the banks of a river, in some faraway outpost of those vast plains.
Efrén Jiménez, Hugo's childhood playmate and next-door neighbor, says of those days, "Sabaneta was made up of about four streets. At that time I think there must have been about a thousand people, maybe a little more. We all knew each other, we were all like one big family." There was no regular electric light, but the village had a generator that delivered electricity every day from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Hugo's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, taught at the Julián Pino school, the only one in the village. Another childhood friend recalls the elder Chávez as a good educator, "strict, demanding, and disciplined, but not arbitrary."

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born in Sabaneta, in the state of Barinas, on July 28, 1954, the second of six brothers. His mother, Elena, has admitted that during those years "my work was all family. I couldn't do anything else." They lived in a house with a roof made of palm leaves. That was where all her boys were born: "With a midwife. Like a pig, because back then there was no hospital, no doctor, nothing. It was just you in childbirth. And the pain was the same with all of them. All of them."
The Chávez family finances were very precarious; the money disappeared as fast as the children appeared. Perhaps for that reason, Rosa Inés Chávez, Hugo's paternal grandmother, would become an important figure in his life. Because of the family's strained budget, she was the one who raised young Hugo, and Chávez has openly acknowledged the tremendous role his grandmother has played in his life. When his second wife bore him a daughter, she was baptized Rosa Inés. Those close to Chávez's grandmother confirm that she influenced Chávez in a way that would have been all but impossible in his parents' home.

Elena Frías de Chávez was eighteen years old when she gave birth to Adán, her first son. A year and three months later, she gave birth again, to Hugo. Another year and three months later, she gave birth to yet another baby. At that point, her mother-in-law offered to lend a hand, and it was agreed that Adán and Hugo would move to their grandmother's house. Economically, it was probably not much of an improvement, but at least the responsibilities were spread around. In her kitchen, Rosa Inés would prepare arañitas, papaya sweets, and Hugo would go out and sell them in the street. In a diary entry dated June 12, 1974, Hugo recalled, "Around here, in the area nearby, there was lots of mountain broom and just looking at it brings back the distant but indelible image of my life as a child, in the fields of Sabaneta, with Adán and my grandmother, gathering handfuls of that plant to sweep our modest house with the dirt floor." Chávez's many fond references to his grandmother clearly reveal that her affection and love were and are of paramount importance to him. As far as anyone knows, she was a quiet, good-humored woman. Her death, in 1982, was a terrible blow to the two brothers whom she raised.

Elena eventually decided she wanted her children to return home, but by then it was already too late. "Afterward, when I wanted to get my children back, my husband said to me, 'Elena, if you take those little boys away from her, my mother will have a heart attack. And if my mother dies it will be your fault.' And so I didn't say anything, because if she died, they were going to blame it on me. . . . After a while I brought it up again, I said, 'Hugo, I want my sons to come back here with me.' " The verb "take away" may sound harsh, but that is precisely what they would have been doing. The years went by, and the two little boys would never return to live in the home of Hugo and Elena. They would often spend much of the day at their parents' house, but at night they always went back to sleep at their grandmother's. According to Elena, her house was home for the two boys "until Hugo went to the Academy and Adán left for college."

The influence of his grandmother and the early separation from his mother have served as fodder for many hypotheses regarding the evolution of Hugo Chávez's personality and character. Some people feel there is a connection between the circumstances of his early life and the incendiary tone of his political rhetoric. Some people sense in him a perpetual aggression that they believe stems from a deep-seated resentment regarding his early childhood experiences. This would be supported by a related theory suggesting that Chávez harbors muted feelings of ill will toward his mother.

Herma Marksman, the history professor who was Chávez's lover for nine years, says, "I felt that he loved his father more than his mother. I think that he really missed the warmth of his mother during those early years. That is my personal perception." Marksman also recalls a heated discussion they once had as a couple, which ended with the following exchange. " 'So you don't love your mother?' I asked him. And he said, 'No. I respect her.' On two separate occasions," she says, "he brought up this distance from his mother. It was so extreme that, for a time, if the two of them crossed paths on the street, they would avoid each other so they wouldn't have to say hello. That's what he told me." According to Marksman, there was a period of two years when Chávez did not speak to his mother at all.

In an interview with the magazine Primicia, in 1999, a confession from Elena added more fuel to the fire: "I didn't want to have children . . . I don't know, I didn't like them, it didn't seem appealing, but since God told me, 'That is what you are going to do,' I got married and a month later I was pregnant." She also admits that she was very strict, and would often hit her sons to keep them in line, a common practice in Venezuela in those years.

When Chávez entered the military academy in 1971, the very first letter he wrote was to his grandmother Rosa Inés, and she was the person he would write to again and again after that, his letters filled with expressions that confirmed their closeness: "Dear Mamá," he often wrote to her, and he also referred to her on occasion as "mamita." His words reflect genuine warmth and affection, a strong, profound emotional bond. At the end of one of these letters, dated August 31, 1971, he said as much: "Finally, I want you to know that I have always felt proud to have been raised by you and to be able to call you Mamá. And I ask you to bless me, your loving son." This deep-seated devotion contrasts a bit with the feelings he expressed in letters to his birth mother. The correspondence with Elena de Chávez was also loving and affectionate but far more sporadic, which does seem to suggest that young Hugo's maternal bond was with his grandmother. That, at least, is how he put it on the eve of his graduation from the military academy: "I have been alive for twenty years, sixteen of which I spent with you. I have learned so many things from you: to be humble but proud, and the most important thing, which I inherited from you, was that spirit of sacrifice that I hope will take me far, although perhaps, if I am unlucky, it will cut my illusions short."

While some believe that the circumstances of his childhood were extremely traumatic, others feel the exact opposite is true: one childhood friend remembers Hugo as a happy child and points out that this type of family arrangement, in which grandparents or uncles and aunts raised grandchildren or nieces and nephews, was quite normal in the rural Venezuela of those years. In general, Chávez himself has also tended to recall his childhood as a happy time in his life; he has never spoken of his early years as a hell from which he needed to escape. On his Sunday radio show of October 17, 2004, he remarked that his early years had been "poor but happy," and he has often delighted in telling stories about his two great childhood passions: painting and baseball. Elena also remembers the talent and skill her son demonstrated: "He liked to draw a lot. He painted everything. He would sit down right here and look at a little dog, and in a flash he'd paint it. He would make drawings of his brothers, his friends . . . anyone who came his way would say, 'Huguito, make me a drawing.' And right away he would draw a little something. Just like that."

His other great passion was el juego de pelota: baseball. Almost all little boys in Venezuela, at one time or another, dream of being baseball players, and around that time, a Venezuelan pitcher whose last name also happened to be Chávez had made it to the American big leagues with a promising future. His first name was Isaías, though thanks to his superlative pitching skills, he became known as "Látigo"—the Whip. Huguito took an immediate shine to the Whip, who was ultimately more than just an idol—he was a model, a dream that Hugo could aspire to. Whenever Hugo played in the streets or in one of the empty lots in his village, he would daydream about one day becoming a real-life baseball player, a celebrity who could command ovations from the crowds in a massive stadium somewhere.

Others from Sabaneta who were close to the family during those years also agree that Hugo Chávez's childhood was not a wretched experience that warped his personality and made him resentful, aggressive, and vengeful. Aside from speculations about what went on inside the family nucleus, there seems to be only one distant story offering any suggestion of a childhood marked by humiliation. His aunt Joaquina Frías describes it: "The first day Hugo went to school they wouldn't let him inside. He was wearing an old pair of canvas slippers, the only ones he had. His grandmother Rosa Inés cried and cried because she couldn't afford to buy him shoes. It was heart-wrenching to watch that woman, so strong-willed in general, break down like that. I don't know how she managed to buy another pair of slippers, but the boy was able to go back to school." This scene hardly seems like something that could define the totality of a man's character, but yet again it does underscore the importance of his grandmother: after all, it was Rosa Inés who accompanied him on his first day of school, and it was Rosa Inés who confronted even the tiniest of everyday mishaps and troubles.

Edmundo Chirinos is a nationally renowned psychiatrist. Associated with leftist politics, he is the former rector of Venezuela's Central University and was once a candidate for the presidency. After the 1992 coup attempt, he became acquainted with Hugo Chávez. When he was imprisoned in Yare, he didn't know many people in the civilian world. He called some of us who had a certain prestige or were known by people. That's how he called the current vice president [at that time, José Vicente Rangel], his mentor, Luis Miquilena, and many others that have come into his government. He called me because I had been a presidential candidate and had political experience; second, he had family problems, and required my services as psychiatric counselor. He was not perturbed; he only had common problems anybody could have had with wives or children. That's how I became his friend and counselor.
When Chirinos describes Hugo Chávez, he does not single out the president's relationship with his grandmother, but he does highlight some notable personality traits that are clearly linked to his life experience, including his childhood: "Chávez feels genuine scorn for oligarchic people, not only in the sense of possessing money but of affectation, through gestures, language . . . and so in that respect, he exhibits an evident bipolarity, of an affinity for the humble and a rejection of the all-powerful."

As time goes by, it will become more and more difficult to study the facts of Hugo Chávez's journey through life. His story already has an "official version," a party line that has been reconstructed and retold from his position of power. Any anecdote about his childhood, any distant event, is now seen in a different light, either magnified or diminished, reinvented or dropped. This is almost part of the natural process by which power invents a new kind of memory. When Elena was asked if she had ever known of her son's intentions of becoming president, she replied, "We hadn't planned anything, anything at all. Look, all this has come to us by the work and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Nothing more."

But it was more than the Holy Spirit that shook the country on December 6, 1998. It is no coincidence that the person running Venezuela today came of age in the army. Nor is it anything new: between 1830 and 1958 the country was governed by civilians for a scant nine years. In 1958, the demise of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez's dictatorship marked the beginning of the longest period of democracy Venezuela has ever known. During this era the main parties opposing the military regime came together and, with the exception of the Communist Party, drafted an agreement of governance, later known as the Punto Fijo Pact. Ultimately, Democratic Action (the Social Democratic party) and the Christian Democrats' Independent Political Electoral Organizing Committee (known as COPEI, from its initials in Spanish) took control of the public sector in Venezuela. During four decades, the two parties took turns in the presidency. The adecos, as the Social Democrats are called, governed for
five terms, and the copeyanos, as the Christian Democrats are known, led the government on three occasions. By 1998, this model was so deeply in crisis that Hugo Chávez's main promise to the country was to end "forty years of corrupt democracy." This was the central theme of his campaign: to do away with the past.

On December 7, 1998, the editorial page of the newspaper El Nacional neatly summarized the sentiments of the majority of the voting public: The results of this Sunday's election speak very clearly about Venezuelan society, not just about the great hopes for change that have been evolving at its core, but also about the tremendous levels of frustration that have turned the majority against the old political leadership. It is absolutely clear that the entire country has chosen an option that is different from that which the traditional ruling class was trying to impose. It was clear that the punishment vote had worked, and that democracy—at least the kind that the Venezuelan elite had engendered—was no longer a promise that people felt they could believe in. In 1998, everyone in Venezuela, even those who did not vote for Hugo Chávez, wanted a change.

This evaluation of the immediate past, however, may be unfair. It may also be influenced by the way Venezuelans relate to their own reality, to the culture of a country that has never quite figured out how to assimilate its oil wealth. There is little doubt as to how or why, in scarcely forty years, Venezuela's civilian-democratic project became so warped and so corrupt, dissolving in a debilitating crisis that touched every area of society and its institutions, from the economy to political representation to the delivery of justice and beyond. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that, at least in the beginning, the democratic experience modernized the country and served to interrupt the militarist tradition—and temptation—of Venezuelan history, introducing educational reform, agrarian reform, the decentralization process, the nationalization of the oil business, the creation of scholarships and specialized study programs abroad. No legitimate assessment can overlook the country's very deep complexities during this period. Even in economic terms, the verdict always requires a good deal of qualification.
In 1997, a group of academics and researchers decided to undertake a serious and exhaustive analysis of poverty in Venezuela. In 2004, they published the results of their study:

By the middle of the twentieth century, there was already a deeply rooted conviction that Venezuela was rich because of oil, because of that natural gift that does not depend on productivity or the enterprising spirit of the Venezuelan people. Political activity revolved around the struggle to distribute the wealth, rather than the creation of a sustainable source of wealth that would depend upon the commercial initiatives and the productivity of the majority of the Venezuelan people. Under democracy (starting in 1958), the income from oil (which represented almost 90 percent of exports and 60 percent of the national budget) was distributed more broadly, but this distortion in the mentality and the economic dynamic became a permanent factor in the country. Politicians rested on their promises—as well as some successful initiatives to expand public services—of distributing the wealth that was in the hands of the state.

More and more, the country harbored the illusion that it could advance toward modern consumer habits (through imports purchased with its petrodollars) without having to develop a diversified production through a modern culture of productivity. To a certain degree, this was possible for 10 percent of the population in a Venezuela of less than 5 million inhabitants, but there is no way that in Venezuela today, with 25 million inhabitants, 11 million workers will enjoy decent, steady jobs while clinging to the oil dynamic and the culture of easy money. Twenty-five years ago, after sixty years of growth from 1918 to 1978, a period in which the gross national product grew more than 6 percent annually and Venezuelans experienced the sensation of social mobility, the country fell into decline, and poverty began to grow at an alarming and sustained rate.

Hugo Chávez was born in that Venezuela of less than 5 million inhabitants. He benefited from the advantages of that first democratic, modernizing impulse of the governments that succeeded the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship. But he also witnessed and lived through the decline. In this sense, he was a link between these two countries: one captivated by the quest to build a fairer, more evolved society with solid institutions and enterprises, the other in thrall to the great national illusion, a utopia in which the state is the providential benefactor, all structure and rules are dispensable, effort is a distraction, and destiny is not a future to build but a heaven that already exists, a treasure already won that needs only to be meted out properly.

Those who worked on Chávez's presidential campaign took brilliant advantage of the widespread desire for a clean break with the system. "The country had expectations for Chávez," says Juan Barreto, a journalist close to the president. "[This was] because he was the person who, in the most frontal way imaginable, had stood up to the symbolic forms of political power: the central government and Carlos Andrés Pérez, who at that moment was the living incarnation of corruption." Though the people who designed his electoral campaign say that Chávez did not let people advise him and "created his own image," it is clear that they did have to fix certain things along the way. For example, Chávez often sounded extremely aggressive when he made speeches. He also had a tendency to use a confrontational, macabre vocabulary—the word "death" frequently popped into his speeches, which led people to think of his candidacy as something frightening. In addition, the many groups that supported him, which were lumped together in an alliance called the Patriotic Pole, included the Communist Party and other leftist organizations with extremely radical postures. His campaign strategists soon realized that the real debate and the real issues were more than just a repudiation of the past and of the country's traditional parties and their corrupt practices. Nobody, they realized, could win an election without offering hope.

Rafael Céspedes, who served as an adviser to Dominican president Leonel Fernández on two occasions, played a key role in fine-tuning Chávez's public image. One of his principal strategies was to use Marisabel Rodríguez, the candidate's second wife, in the campaign. Marisabel was part of an elaborate plan intended to soothe the Venezuelan populace by softening the candidate's image. Marisabel is well educated, kind, attractive, and spontaneous. Her type of beauty was especially useful to the campaign because there is something about her that recalls the stereotype that so many people seem to adore: she is white, she has blue eyes, and in fact, she had even participated in a competition sponsored by Revlon to find the most beautiful face in Venezuela. At the side of the unpredictable, aggressive soldier, suddenly there was a real-life Barbie doll who even made sense when she talked.

All through 1998, Chávez and his team plugged away, and his campaign went from strength to strength. The statistics are overwhelming: in January the polls reported a 9 percent approval rating, whereas by October, just two months away from the elections, the same polls revealed that 48 percent of the electorate was on his side. It hadn't always been smooth sailing. In June, Bandera Roja (Red Flag), one of the leftist groups that had supported his candidacy, dissociated itself from the campaign and accused Chávez of working a "double discourse": "In front of the nation he acts like an avenger who wants to sweep the decks and start with a clean slate, turn the country upside-down, but when he is among the powerful he shows his true colors and confesses his true intentions, which are to carry out nothing but superficial changes." Also that month, Teodoro Petkoff, the leader of the Venezuelan leftist opposition and founder of MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, the Movement Toward
Socialism party) and an internationally renowned activist, called him a populist and compared his demagogy to that of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez did not even flinch.

On July 24, the date on which Simón Bolívar's birthday is celebrated, Hugo Chávez registered his presidential candidacy with the National Electoral Council and declared, "Let the whole world know that in Venezuela, a true social revolution is now under way. Nothing and nobody will be able to stand in the way of the triumph of the democratic revolution." The parties that made up the Patriotic Pole and supported his candidacy were the Movimiento V República (Fifth Republic Movement), an entity founded by Chávez himself; Movement Toward Socialism; PPT (Patria para Todos, or Homeland for All); the Venezuelan Communist Party; and the Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo (People's Electoral Movement). This was not a massively organized machine by any stretch of the imagination—quite the opposite, in fact. It was a collection of relatively small leftist parties, united behind the personal figure of the candidate. With his unusual talent for communication, Chávez capitalized on the collective desire for change by cultivating and promoting the idea that his election, in and of itself, already represented a rupture in the historical continuum, a transformation.

Jimmy Carter, who attended the election, who attended the elections that Sunday, December 6, 1998, as an observer, confirmed this by stating that he had witnessed a democratic and peaceful revolution.

Chávez's campaign chief, the retired general Alberto Müller Rojas, suggests a less heroic version of that election day: "The campaign won pretty easily. The victory had more to do with his adversaries' political errors than the quality of our own electoral campaign, which was relatively disorganized because that was the only way it could be. The elections were won more because of what the opposition didn't achieve than because of what chavismo [the Chávez movement] actively achieved. I am absolutely convinced of that." Anyone who studies the performance of Chávez's opponents will undoubtedly discover a number of grave miscalculations. First, his opponents seemed unaware of the fact that the country was changing. They never seemed capable of reading the reality of what was going on—neither in the very beginning, when Irene Sáez, a former Miss Universe without much substance, enjoyed tremendous popular support, nor at the end, when a number of parties and organizations, in desperation over Chávez's imminent triumph, came together far too late in support of Henrique Salas Römer, the only candidate with a chance of beating Chávez, according to the polls. The opposition simply had not offered any coherent political alternative for the Venezuelan voters—not even in their electoral demagogy was there the glimmer of a serious proposal. Their only objective was to avert a Patriotic Pole victory. Quite aptly, the press labeled the movement the "anti-Chávez front."

Nedo Paniz, another close Chávez collaborator during this period, clarifies that the campaign was not all improvisation and guesswork. It was very expensive, and Chávez doggedly pursued the strategy of nothing but ferocious, constant criticism of those in power. He also refused to take part in a broadcast debate with his main opponent, and it was this aloof, fierce attitude that ultimately brought the traditional political parties and the entire political class to their knees.

The rest of the country, however, was jubilant. It had been years since so many Venezuelans had come together to celebrate a victory like this. When he assumed the presidency, Hugo Chávez enjoyed 80 percent of the population's support. Müller himself confirms that Gustavo Cisneros, the wealthiest man in the country, supported the Chávez cause with cash donations and free airtime on Venevisión, his television channel. This gesture of confidence is an interesting example of the enigmatic and ambiguous relationship that has always existed between the president and the magnate. Cisneros has long since been the emblematic enemy of the Venezuelan left as well as the living image of the reactionary far right. Some years later, Chávez would say Cisneros was conspiring against his government. On a radio program in May 2004, Chávez bristled when he spoke of Cisneros: "The day will come, and hopefully it is not far off, when we will have a body of judges and prosecutors who are
afraid of nothing and who will act according to what the Constitution says, and send capos like this Gustavo Cisneros to prison." Shortly thereafter, however, a private meeting was held between Chávez and Cisneros under the stewardship of Jimmy Carter. The Chávez camp claimed that Cisneros was involved in drug trafficking and had been one of the masterminds behind the April 2002 coup to remove Chávez from the presidency. Apparently, things have always been like this between the two men. Müller recalls that at one dinner together, both men were surrounded the entire time by their respective aides, who acted as intermediaries because the two refused to speak to each other directly. "The compromise that Chávez reached with Cisneros was that he would give [Cisneros] a monopoly on educational television in Venezuela," says Müller Rojas. If that was the case, Chávez never made good on his promise.

With respect to support and alliances, this was far from the only bit of unexplained business on the path to electoral victory. In 2002, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that Banco Bilbao Vizcaya had donated $1.52 million to Chávez's electoral campaign. Luis Miquilena, the head of finances for the Patriotic Pole, was involved in this relationship. One of Venezuela's veteran leftist leaders, Miquilena was Chávez's mentor and his first interior minister. He and his business partner Tobías Carrero were rumored to have accepted money from a foreign institution for an electoral campaign, which is a crime in Venezuela. This revelation led to another bit of information that raised even more eyebrows: on January 11, 1999, during his first trip to Spain as president-elect of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez met with Emilio Ybarra, president of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, and then with Emilio Botín and his daughter Ana Patricia Botín, of Banco Santander. At first, the new administration
denied everything, but the situation soon became unmanageable: according to the Spanish daily El País, the central bank of Spain reported that BBV (which has since merged and is now Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria) had diverted funds of "more than $1.5 million through two payments to the Chávez campaign with the intention of protecting itself in the event of a possible nationalization of the finance industry in this Latin American country." On April 6, 2002, General Müller acknowledged the BBV donations, adding that the majority of international banks operating in Venezuela had also contributed to the Chávez campaign.

A few days later, however, on April 25, Hugo Chávez said on the Spanish TV station Telecinco, "I have not received one dollar from these people, this bank . . . what is it called? . . . Bilbao Vizcaya." It is also rumored that the campaign had received $1.8 million from Banco Santander. In Spain, on June 20, Emilio Ybarra, the former copresident of Banco Santander, admitted to Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón that in fact he had donated money to finance the Chávez campaign in 1998. Müller has said that "Luis Miquilena handled these resources in a secret manner. Nobody—neither the parties that comprised the Patriotic Pole, nor the apparatus I had in place at campaign headquarters—knew how much money was there, what it was spent on, or how much was spent on each individual item." Venezuelan justice sank into these shadows. The charge against Chávez of illegal campaign financing, which was filed with the attorney general of the Republic, never went anywhere.

On the night of December 6, 1998, however, the country was in the throes of euphoria and had little interest in such details. In the gathering in front of the Teresa Carreño Theater, Hugo Chávez began to speak. The cameras of every media organization in the country were firmly fixed on the new president's face, and the entire country anxiously awaited his words. William Izarra, a retired military officer and the secret protagonist of many a military conspiracy, watched as if he couldn't believe it was really happening. As he walked past Izarra, Hugo Chávez stopped to embrace him. And in the middle of this emotion-filled moment, the president-elect whispered, "We did it, brother. After all those years, the revolution can finally begin."

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name

For those of you that aren't familiar with the word "caudillo", the closest explanation is a strong leader that rules for many years with excessive power.

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name
*By Tracy Dove, Ph.D
Editor, The Russia News Service August 26, 2007


The news coming out of Venezuela these days is entertaining to say the least, and any Woody Allen fan will recognize in Hugo Chavez an anti-hero image reminiscent of Allen's 1970's film parody in Central America, Bananas. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as it is now officially called, is run by a president who believes in re-distributive socialism and regular reinforcement of the cult of personality. This week, Chavez has announced the decision to move the nation's clocks 30 minutes forward to provide for more sunlight when the Bolivarian proletariat wakes from its dreams of floating island platforms, North Korean parades and lot and lots of oil. So who is this Chavez- wielding the peoples' sundial- and has there ever been anything like him in the past?

Most certainly; Chavez belongs to the genre of South American Caudillos that once ruled the 19th century republics of the continent and most often met with fiery and untimely ends. In Venezuela, we are reminded of the corrupt and ridiculously self-important president Cipriano Castro who ruled the country from 1899 to 1909. Castro was one of the strongmen who gathered the thugs and the disaffected peasantry and trained them into a formidable army which was then marched on Caracas in October of 1899 to overthrow the presidency- which was conveniently vacated for the purpose once Castro's forces defeated government troops.

Not unlike Chavez today, Castro proceeded to change the constitution to fit his personal vision of what government should be; he threatened the opposition and had its leaders assassinated before having himself re-elected the official head of state in 1904. Properly secure in power, Castro lived a life of luxury by way of executive order and was quick to slap the peasantry into obedience when they frequently rebelled. Besides plundering the state treasury, Castro nurtured bad relations with most states around him and thumbed his nose at the European banks that loaned his country money. Already in 1902 he had defaulted on debts owed to the colonial powers, and these responded by sending warships to blockade the country's ports and occasionally fired on shoreline fortifications to remind Castro what the cost of money was.

Remember, this was 1902 and the heyday of new European imperialism, and the American President didn't appreciate having British, Italian and German warships in the hemisphere that was clearly demarcated as colonial-free by the 1828 Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt didn't quite know what to do with Castro, just as our current Bush administration is baffled about what to do with Chavez. But the situation became dire when intelligence reports suggested that Germany was looking for new colonies in the region, and Roosevelt reluctantly sent American warships to Venezuela to scare off the vultures, thereby legitimizing Castro and inadvertently postponing the payment of his debts to Europe.

But Roosevelt was nobody's fool, and he didn't contract malaria in the jungles of Brazil to let himself be led around by the nose by some illegitimate cowboy sitting in Caracas. In 1904, Roosevelt addressed the US Congress and added a stipulation to the Monroe Doctrine that would allow the US- as part of its policing power of the Western hemisphere- to intervene in the internal affairs of the American states if bad government there led to the imperial takeover of them by any colonial power. This so-called "corollary" to the famous doctrine was one of the spurious arguments employed in arguing for Kennedy's doomed Bay of Pigs operation in 1962.

(Venezuelan) Castro didn't last much beyond the next round of creditors' disillusionment with the financial situation in the Caracas banks; in 1907 he was forced to accept arbitration in regard to the debt, and Venezuela was forced to sign on the dotted line of repayment. Ill with syphilis due to his obvious social recklessness, Castro left for Paris in 1908 to seek treatment for the disease, which opened the door for his best friend- the Vice President Juan Vicente Gomez- to overthrow Castro's rule. The deposed leader spent the rest of his miserable life in Puerto Rico trying to re-overthrow Gomez, who had learned to multiply the excesses of the Castro regime for his own term in office, which lasted until 1935.

The difference today is obvious in Chavez' Venezuela; firstly, el Supremo is widely popular in Venezuela, and he really is spending the oil revenues on the people. Secondly, Chavez looks healthy and might not need to leave for any western hospitals anytime soon. Cuban doctors are certainly caring for Chavez, whose designs on the clocks may seem absurd, but it is right to point out that Afghanistan, India, Iran and Myanmar also have half-hour increments off of Greenwich Mean Time- so the intention of the Ministry of the Popular Power of Science and Technology, as it is called, might be well-credited for allowing Venezuela's 27 million to wake up happier to the sunshine- as dictated by Caudillo Hugo Chavez.

*Tracy Dove, editor of The Russia News Service, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The rise of the "Boligarchs"

Inconsistency seems to be the norm for the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

The rise of the "Boligarchs"
Aug 9th 2007 | CARACAS
From The Economist print edition


"PETROLEUM socialism" is how Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, recently dubbed the blend of military populism and neo-Marxist statism to which he is subjecting his country. Its prime objective, he insists, is to improve the lot of the country's poor majority. Mr Chávez proclaims that "being rich is bad". He frequently lashes out at what he calls "the oligarchy". Strange,then, that the streets of Caracas are clogged with big new 4x4s (Hummers are especially favoured), it is hard to get a table at the best restaurants, and art dealers and whisky importers have never had it so good. A new oligarchy seems to be rising in Venezuela on the back of the "Bolivarian Revolution",named for the country's independence hero. "Some of Chávez's speeches are for the gallery," says Alberto Muller Rojas, a retired army general who was until recently the president's chief of staff. "And I'll give you an example: the attack on the bourgeoisie." As evidence, General Muller singles out the banks: "the most extreme expression of the bourgeoisie" but "the most favoured sector" of the economy since Mr. Chávez came to power in 1999.

Their prosperity owes much to an oil windfall: the price of Venezuela's main export has increased almost eightfold since 1999 and the economy has been growing at 10% a year. But government policies, too, have favoured the bankers and other intermediaries: inflation is close to 20% and the official value of the currency is twice its black-market exchange rate. So the savvy investor looks for access to cheap dollars, import opportunities and government contracts, all of which are largely conditional on political obedience. By contrast, manufacturers and farmers face price controls and risk sporadic official harassment. The result has been the rise of what isknown, in obeisance to Bolívar, as the "Boli-bourgeoisie". Thanks to economic growth and social programmes, the government claims that only 30% of Venezuelan families now live in poverty, down from 55% at the peak in 2003. But according to a new report by the central bank, income inequality has widened slightly under Mr Chávez: the Gini coefficient-astatistical measure of inequality-has gone from 0.44 in 2000 to 0.48 in 2005.

Typical of the new "Boligarchy" is Wilmer Ruperti, a shipping broker who was once a merchant seaman. His ascent was helped by a two-month strike against Mr Chávez by workers at Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company. Mr Ruperti chartered ships to help the government break the strike. Another is Arné Chacón, whose brother Jesse is the communications minister. Arné now owns half of Baninvest, a bank. He acquired it with loans for which his main apparent collateral was his official connections.

Mr Chávez claims to be pursuing economic nationalism and "endogenous development". But farmers and manufacturers struggle against cheap imports. Though local dairy products are often missing from the supermarket shelves, Gouda and Emmenthal cheeses nestle beside Irish butter. The frozen chickens at Mercal, a government chain of subsidised grocery shops, are Brazilian. The importers who supply Mercal have grown rich. But Venezuela's ranchers are becoming extinct, threatened by expropriations, land invasions and price controls, as well as by extortion and kidnappings by criminal gangs.

Officials stress that two-thirds of the poor have benefited directly from government social policies. As well as Mercal, these include the "missions", which offer education and health care. Up to 2m people get a small cash stipend. But despite hefty increases in the minimum wage and price controls on basic goods, inflation is eating away at the gains.

For those with connections, however, the rewards are great. The World Bank recently ranked Venezuela as the second-worst country in the Americas for the control of corruption, above only Haiti. Others confirm this perception."We usually ask for 10%," a foreign diplomat reports one government official admitting. "But some get greedy and want 15-20%."

Since his re-election in December, Mr Chávez has frequently suggested capping the salaries of the highest-paid public officials. He also called on those with "excess" wealth to donate part of it to worthy causes. The response has been meagre. If he really tries to make socialism more than a slogan, some of the fiercest resistance may come from the new bourgeoisie his own policies have created.

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Assignment: Venezuela

A balanced view on Venezuela's political situation presented by a local TV station in Miami. Enjoy!

Part I of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858310/index.html?taf=mia

Part II of V:
www.local10.com/video/13859147/index.html?taf=mia

Part III of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858666/index.html?taf=mia

Part IV of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858839/index.html?taf=mia

Part V of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858908/index.html?taf=mia

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Sunday, August 5, 2007

On the Road With Sean Penn and Chavez


It's easy for Sean Penn and many other Americans that have visited Venezuela to praise a revolution that doesn't affect them. I wonder what they would think if they were blacklisted by Bush for being anti-war activist. Like many anti-Chávez Venezuelans are criminalized just for expressing their dissidence.

On the Road With Sean Penn and Chavez
By IAN JAMES 08.04.07, 5:04 AM ET


LA GRITA, Venezuela - Aboard the presidential jet, a grinning Hugo Chavez put a hand on Sean Penn's shoulder, praised his acting and added: "And he's anti-Bush!"

The Venezuelan president reveled in his role as host to the Hollywood star as they flew across the country Friday and traveled through the countryside in a military jeep with Chavez at the wheel, stopping to greet cheering supporters.

The Oscar-winning actor has previously condemned the Iraq war and called for President Bush to be impeached, but he revealed little about his thoughts on Venezuela, saying he came as a freelance journalist after reporting stints in Iraq and Iran - and was saving his conclusions for print.

"He's a courageous man," Chavez said as he introduced Penn to reporters and dignitaries during the flight from Caracas to western Venezuela. "He's very quiet, but he has a fire burning inside."

Penn is the latest in a series of U.S. celebrities and public figures to visit Chavez, including actor Danny Glover, singer Harry Belafonte and Cindy Sheehan, who became a peace activist after her soldier son was killed in Iraq.

Enlivened by his conversations with Penn, the socialist president lambasted the U.S. government for "destroying the world" with war and warned of brewing economic troubles, saying Washington should do much more for its own poor.

"There could be a revolution there," Chavez said. "We'll help them. The United States must be helped because the United States is going to implode."

Driving a Venezuelan-made Tiuna jeep through fields of potatoes, corn and lettuce, Chavez craned his head to chat with Penn, who rode in the rear seat wearing sunglasses and taking in the spectacle.

Penn's star power was eclipsed by Chavez, who honked to flag-waving admirers along the road through a mountain valley and stopped to kiss children and clasp hands with screaming women.

At the end of the trip, Chavez and Penn donned white lab coats and toured an agricultural research laboratory.

Some Chavez opponents have been critical of Penn's visit, saying he is being used for political purposes.

While Chavez made a speech, however, Penn stood at a distance alongside the audience, occasionally jotting down notes. He spoke only when Chavez asked the actor to say a few words.

"I came here looking for a great country. I found a great country," Penn told the crowd.

"I'm also here as a journalist and so I owe it to that medium to wait until I've digested, fact-checked and finished my journey here" before saying more, Penn said. He thanked Chavez for the visit.

The president lauded Penn as "a man who is critical of his government and of imperialism."

At one of Chavez's many roadside stops, Penn remarked: "I'm just here to take it in like everybody else."

Chavez noted they were visiting "one of the most tense zones of Latin America" - near the border with Colombia, a haven for drug traffickers, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries. Security was tight, with soldiers and bodyguards lining the motorcade route.

Holding a map of the border region, Chavez said the U.S. "empire" has a strong presence on the Colombian side, including military advisers and spies.

But he kept the tone light with visiting dignitaries from countries including Canada, Poland and Burkina Faso who joined him on the presidential Airbus jet. With a hearty laugh, he said: "Surely they're going to take satellite photographs, and they're going to say in Washington that Chavez is going around with... a crazy international battalion - African, Canadian, Cuban ... and gringo!"

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Man and superman

For those of you that still have doubts about Mr. Chávez.


Meet the real Hugo Chávez, military caudillo and political televangelist
AP


IN THE eight years since he was first elected Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez has become the most controversial political figure in Latin America. He has also, as Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan minister who now edits Foreign Policy, points out in his introduction to this biography, bracketed himself with Fidel Castro as one of the very few from the region to have become a household name.

He has achieved this partly through sheer verbal effrontery, as in his badmouthing of George Bush. But Mr Chávez's fame stems, too, from his oil-backed claims to be leading a new revolutionary project of “21st-century socialism” that tears up the nostrums of economic liberalism. His fans see this as a model for the developing world. To his opponents, he is an elected dictator who is destroying his country's democracy and, through reckless public spending and controls on private business, its economy.

So there is already much mythology surrounding Mr Chávez. But the man himself has remained elusive. This highly readable biography, first published in Spanish in Venezuela in late 2004, is not “definitive”. But it is an essential starting point to understanding Mr Chávez, and thus to seeing what lies ahead for his country. Cristina Marcano, a Venezuelan journalist, and Alberto Barrera, her novelist husband, interviewed a number of people who at varying times have been close to Mr Chávez. They also draw on the little-publicised work of other researchers, especially regarding the plotting in which Mr Chávez was involved as an army officer. They offer a scrupulously balanced account of a man whose belligerence has polarised opinion in his country and beyond.

The Hugo Chávez who emerges from their book is a complex and astute populist. He is first and foremost a military man. Born into respectable poverty in the tropical lowlands, he saw the army as a route to advancement—as do so many lower-middle-class provincial youths in Latin America. Once politics had replaced baseball as his primary passion, his heroes would be nationalist military rulers such as Peru's General Juan Velasco and Panama's Omar Torrijos, rather than Mr Castro or Che Guevara. Indeed, Mr Chávez distrusts civilians; in government, he has placed many military officers in civilian jobs.

As a politician Mr Chávez is a cool strategist, though a sometimes reckless tactician. He is a natural showman with the talents of a televangelist. The authors are surely right when they say that the “root of Chávez's power resides in the religious and emotional bond” he has forged with ordinary Venezuelans, especially poorer ones. In the tradition of the televangelist, that bond has survived its creator's metamorphosis from austere crusader against corruption to a man who clearly enjoys power and its perquisites. Nowadays, the book notes, Mr Chávez sports designer clothes and Cartier watches—and a growing personality cult.

This bond has allowed him to pull off the remarkable trick of posing as the leader of the opposition to his own incompetent government. Along with all this goes a certain kookiness: the authors cite several sources who say that Mr Chávez believes himself the reincarnation of Ezequiel Zamora, a 19th-century caudillo, and that he leaves an empty chair at meetings for the spirit of Símon Bolívar, the hero of Venezuela's independence.

Mr Chávez has also enjoyed much luck. He has been underestimated by opponents. He is still in power today because of a massive oil windfall. Had his predecessors benefited from today's oil prices Venezuelans would almost certainly not have abandoned their 40-year experiment with a two-party system in favour of an outsider like Mr Chávez.

The authors have relatively little to say about their subject's economic and social policies. But they are particularly useful in tearing away the mythology surrounding the most controversial episode in Mr Chávez's presidency. In their account of the failed coup that briefly toppled the president in April 2002, they show that the army's commanders rebelled when the president ordered them to repress a vast anti-government demonstration. Those same commanders then recoiled, restoring Mr Chávez to power after a conspiratorial group tried to use the confusion to decree an end to democracy.

In their righteous indignation over this conspiracy, Mr Chávez's acolytes gloss over the fact that their hero himself led a similar failed coup against an elected government ten years before. His intention, we are told, was to set up a military-dominated government which would shoot civilian politicians for corruption.

For this English-language edition, the authors have added a brief postscript to a narrative that stops with their subject's victory in a recall referendum in August 2004. At times their text seems dated. A man previously known “for moving nimbly through the terrain of ideological ambiguity” has in recent months swerved more decisively in the direction of state-socialism and a lifetime presidency. That is already limiting his appeal in Latin America, and among the left in Europe. Mr Chávez's closest allies nowadays are in Iran and Belarus. Mr Naím worries that Mr Chávez has “hit a global nerve that makes him internationally relevant”. Perhaps so, but only so long as Mr Bush is around to hate, and so long as the oil money lasts.

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