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Chavez's Fix

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Among the casualties of the Caracazo, as the four days of violence came to be known, was the political scientists' rosy view of Venezuelan democracy. As Ellner writes, those factors previously seen as the system's virtues were now understood to be its vices. The parties' excessive influence had stunted civil society; their multiclass membership prevented them from effectively representing the interests of the country's lower-class majorities; and their penchant for interparty pacts had papered over the deep and growing polarization that would be, from that moment forward, the defining feature of Venezuelan politics.

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Daniel Wilkinson
Daniel Wilkinson covers Latin America for Human Rights Watch. His book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror,...

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If you found George W. Bush's 2000 victory in Florida difficult to stomach, imagine being on the losing side of Mexico's 1988 presidential election.

A rich and illuminating postmortem on the region's democratic poster child can be found in the compilations edited by Ellner and fellow American academic Daniel Hellinger, and by Jennifer McCoy and David Myers, as well as the essay collection by Venezuelan historian Margarita López Maya. While varying somewhat in emphasis and content, all three tell essentially the same story: how an economic crisis collided with a political one to create a perfect storm of popular discontent.

Venezuelan democracy had thrived on the distribution of oil revenues through a system of clientelism that fostered dependency and corruption but benefited almost everyone, at least through the '70s. So long as petrodollars were available to underwrite generous subsidies for powerful interest groups and ambitious social programs for the lower classes, there was no need for the governing elite to develop effective policies for the regulation and redistribution of oil wealth. But in the early '80s, a drop in oil prices, combined with a hike in international borrowing costs, sent the economy into a twenty-year decline. From 1975 through 1995, the percentage of the population living in poverty more than tripled, from 17 to 65 percent. Successive administrations responded to the economic crisis with adjustments such as the reduction of state subsidies and capital controls and devaluation of the bolívar, whose design reflected extensive consultation with international creditors but virtually none with the population that would suffer their harsh consequences. The result was the profound sense of betrayal among the country's lower classes that fueled the Caracazo in 1989.

The Caracazo also revealed the severity of the country's political dysfunction. As López Maya observes, it caught the country's democratic leaders off guard because they were largely disconnected from the people they supposedly "represented." I was reminded of the gulf between those two Venezuelas during one of several trips I took to Caracas last year. One evening I drove into the densely populated hills of Catia, in western Caracas, with Andrés Antillano, a community organizer and university professor. "These communities have been here for decades, but until recently they didn't exist, at least not officially," Antillano explained. "The roads in here weren't on the city maps. The properties weren't titled. Many people didn't even have birth certificates. In some areas, there was no electricity, no water, no basic services. The only state presence was the police." Considering that the state was accustomed to treating the country's poor as invisibles, is it any surprise that it didn't anticipate the scope of their discontent in 1989 or solve their problems once they were exposed?

Hugo Chávez stepped onto the country's political stage amid the post-Caracazo social strife. In February 1992 Lieutenant Colonel Chávez and nearly 200 other army officers launched a coup d'état that left scores of civilian casualties and failed to topple the government. Facing certain defeat, Chávez exchanged his gun for what the world now knows to be his most potent weapon: a microphone. The Pérez government allowed the lieutenant colonel to appear on national television to call off the coup and instruct his fellow conspirators to surrender. Once on air, however, the telegenic Chávez did something more: he assumed personal responsibility for the rebellion and hinted that he might try to foment another. Chávez had managed to turn a military disaster into a spectacular media triumph that catapulted him from the obscure ranks of discontented junior officers into the center of the country's political imagination. One minute of television exposure was enough to make him a standard-bearer for the change that the majority of Venezuelans, and the poor especially, craved.

Chávez had served two years in jail for the coup attempt when he was set free in 1994 by a grant of amnesty from the newly elected President Rafael Caldera. Chávez joined the growing ranks of community organizers and activists who were working to transform the political system just as the Caldera government was launching a third wave of neoliberal reforms (such as privatization of state industries, state spending cuts and exchange-rate liberalization) and the country was enduring one of the largest increases in inequality in the world. The continuing economic and political crises set the stage for the 1998 presidential election, which Chávez would win running as the ultimate outsider. The only political experience on his résumé was his involvement in the failed coup.

Once in office, Chávez never stopped campaigning. In his inaugural address he called on the Venezuelan people to join him in a "Bolivarian Revolution" (named after Venezuela's political patron saint, Simón Bolívar, who led the wars of independence against Spain in the nineteenth century); as his first official act he called a national referendum to convene a constituent assembly to write a new Constitution. Chávez would spend much of his first year in office rallying support for this project, and in December 1999 Venezuelans voted overwhelmingly to enact the new Bolivarian Constitution, which "refounded" the republic as a "participatory" democracy in which the state is obligated to promote the "participation of the people in the formation, execution, and control of public administration."

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