Friday, November 30, 2007

In Chavez Territory, signs of dissent

In Chávez Territory, Signs of Dissent
Published: November 30, 2007
Venezuela, Nov. 29 — Three days before a referendum that would vastly expand the powers of President Hugo Chavez, this city’s streets were packed with tens of thousands of opponents to the change on Thursday, a sign that Venezuelans may be balking at placing so much authority in the hands of one man.
Demonstrators at a rally in Caracas against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's proposed constitutional changes.

Even some of Mr. Chavez’s most fervent supporters are beginning to show signs of hesitation at supporting the constitutional changes he is promoting, including ending term limits for the president and greatly centralizing his authority.
New fissures are emerging among his once-cohesive supporters, pointing to the toughest test at the polls for Mr. Chavez in his nine-year presidency.
In the slums of the capital, where some of the president’s staunchest backers live amid the cinder block hovels, debate over the changes has grown more intense in recent days.
“Chávez is delirious if he thinks we’re going to follow him like sheep,” said Ivonne Torrealba, 29, a hairdresser in Coche who supported Mr. Chávez in every election beginning with his first campaign for president in 1998. “If this government cannot get me milk or asphalt for our roads, how is it going to give my mother a pension?”
Both Mr. Chávez and his critics say opinion polls show they will prevail, suggesting a highly contentious outcome. For the first time in years, Venezuela did not invite electoral observers from the
Organization of American States and the European Union, opening the government to claims of fraud if he wins.
Violence has already marked the weeks preceding to the vote. Two students involved in antigovernment protests claimed they were kidnapped and tortured this week by masked men in Barquisimeto, an interior city. And in Valencia, another city, a supporter of Mr. Chávez was shot dead this week in an exchange of gunfire at a protest site.
Tension has also been heightened by rare criticism of the constitutional overhaul from a breakaway party in Mr. Chávez’s coalition in the National Assembly and former confidants of the president, and the government has reacted to this dissent by describing it as “treason.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Chávez and senior officials here have exhibited increasingly erratic behavior ahead of the referendum. Mr. Chávez has lashed out at leaders in Colombia and Spain and asked for an investigation into whether CNN was seeking to incite an assassination attempt against him.
Reports of such plots are not in short supply here. State television also broadcast coverage this week of a memorandum in Spanish claimed to be written by the
C.I.A. in which destabilization plans against Mr. Chávez were laid out. A spokesman for the United States embassy here was unavailable for comment on the report.
Other analysts, including investigators who had previously uncovered financing of Venezuelan opposition groups by the United States government, expressed doubts about the authenticity of the memo, dubbed by Venezuelan officials as part of a plan called “Operation Pliers.”
“I find the document quite suspect,” said Jeremy Bigwood, an independent researcher in Washington. “There’s not an original version in English, and the timing of its release is strange. Everything about it smells bad.”
The simple home of Ms. Torrealba, the hairdresser, located near open sewage alongside a deafening highway in southwestern Caracas, is a case in point. Last December, she and her siblings awoke at dawn with fireworks to celebrate Mr. Chávez’s re-election to a six-year term, which he won with 63 percent of the vote.
This year, the mood in Ms. Torrealba’s home is glum. Her sister, Yohana Torrealba, 20, said she was alarmed by what she viewed as political intimidation by teachers in Misión Ribas, a social welfare program where she takes remedial high-school-level courses.
“The instructors told us we had to vote in favor and demonstrate on the streets for Chávez,” Yohana Torrealba said. “They want Venezuela to become like Cuba.”
Throughout the slums of Coche, confusion persists about how life could change if the constitutional changes are approved. Many residents who own their homes, however humble they may be, fear the government could take control of their property, despite efforts to dispel those fears by Mr. Chávez’s government.
Others wonder what will happen to the mayor and the governor they elected if Mr. Chávez wins the power to handpick rulers for new administrative regions he wants to create. Still others said they were afraid of voting against the proposal out of concern the government could discriminate against its opponents if their vote is made public.
But Mr. Chávez also commands an unrivaled political machine, with his supporters controlling every major institution of government and the loyalty of many voters in Coche and elsewhere. “It’s a lie that they’re going to take our houses away,” said Yanelcy Maitán, 40. “No one has done more for the poor than Chávez.”

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Students emerge as a Leading force against Chavez

Students Emerge as a Leading Force Against Chávez
David Rochkind for The New York Times
Yon Goicoechea, 23, a leader of an anti-Chávez student group. For safety, he moves from one friend’s apartment to another.

Published: November 10, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 9 — Finding Yon Goicoechea, a leader of the nascent student movement protesting the expanding power of President Hugo Chávez, is not easy. He changes cellphones every few days. After receiving dozens of death threats, he moves among the apartments of friends here each day in search of a safe place to sleep.

Yon Goicochea

In an interview this week in a back room at one such residence, a villa in a leafy district in this city, Mr. Goicoechea described the movement that has supplanted traditional political parties in recent weeks as the most cohesive and respected challenger to Mr. Chávez’s government.
“We believe in exhausting the democratic options available to us through peaceful action,” said Mr. Goicoechea, 23, who studies law at Andrés Bello Catholic University here, referring to the students’ opposition to a constitutional overhaul. In the polarized world of Venezuelan political debate, such parsed and polished statements are rare.

But what about the claims, from Mr. Chávez and his loyalists, that the students ultimately want to oust him from office? “We want social transformation, not a coup,” Mr. Goicoechea said. “The real coup d’état is coming from Chávez, who wants to perpetuate himself in power.”

Indeed, the students first burst onto the scene over the summer with protests against Mr. Chávez’s move to push RCTV, a critical television network, off public airwaves. But the president’s proposed charter, which would abolish his term limits, has led to much larger protests here and in other large cities this month.

About 80,000 students flooded main avenues here on Wednesday in a march to the Supreme Court to ask it to suspend the referendum on 69 constitutional amendments scheduled for Dec. 2. Students returning from that march were attacked by gunmen at the campus of the Central University of Venezuela; nine were injured. The violence continued Friday in Mérida in western Venezuela, where four police officers and a bystander were shot and wounded while trying to break up clashes between opposing student groups, Reuters reported.

While such incidents continue ahead of the referendum, Mr. Chávez continues to disparage the student movement, calling the student protests a “fascist attack.” The president has also described the students as “daddy’s boys” — children of privilege resisting social change.

Many are indeed middle-class, but the unusual inclusiveness of public universities here makes it difficult to play class politics.

“I live in Catia,” said Ricardo Sánchez, 24, a student leader at Central University, referring to a conglomeration of slums on Caracas’s western fringe. “I leave home at 5 in the morning, and I have to go home very early so the thugs won’t attack me.

“This reform doesn’t solve those problems,” Mr. Sánchez continued, referring to the proposed constitutional overhaul.

In other statements, the president has gone further, accusing opponents of conspiring to carry out a “soft coup” supported by the United States and being inspired by groups like the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., that advocates nonviolent struggle.

American involvement in political affairs here remains a delicate subject, following the Bush administration’s tacit support for the coup that briefly removed Mr. Chávez from office in 2002. Mr. Chávez has also criticized the United States for channeling funds to nongovernmental groups that are critical of him.

Hewing to a new policy trying to avoid verbal clashes with Mr. Chávez, American officials here carefully denied supporting the students.

“The United States government has no role in the student demonstrations,” said Benjamin Ziff, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Caracas.

But some of Mr. Chávez’s assertions, that the students draw inspiration from nonviolent movements elsewhere, are not off the mark. In the interview, Mr. Goicoechea said he had been fascinated with the Serbian opposition’s toppling in 2000 of Slobodan Milosevic and Gandhi’s struggle against British colonialism.

The movement led by Mr. Goicoechea and others in their 20s has evolved since June, when protesters painted their palms white and inserted flowers in the rifles of members of the security forces. Since then, they have efficiently coordinated protests around the country with a tone of increasing defiance.

“The student leaders now have more credibility among people in the street than any leader of the opposition parties,” said Alberto Garrido, a political analyst.

The are substantial: Mr. Chávez commands fervent support among the poor, and his followers control every institution of the federal government.

Mr. Chávez insists that the proposed charter contains measures needed to move his revolution forward, like a six-hour workday and reconfiguring the military. The president’s term of office would also be extended to seven years from six.

Students opposing these proposals, of course, are not the only movement on campus. Pro-Chávez student leaders have also been mobilized in recent weeks, gaining ample airtime for their views on state television.

Tensions between student groups are increasing. Robert Serra, a student leader who supports Mr. Chávez, said this week that sectors of the population were awaiting an alert to “occupy” the Caracas campuses of Central University and Andrés Bello Catholic University, bastions of opposition to Mr. Chávez.

Still, the growing intensity of anti-Chávez student protests here presents challenges for both sides: Can a revolution advance if large numbers of students are opposed to it? And will others join the students ?

“People don’t believe in political parties anymore; they don’t believe in anyone,” said Stalin González, a leader of the student protests here.

“The students are fresh new figures with a different message,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we’re the salvation.”
Jens Erik Gould contributed reporting.

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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."

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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