Gregory Wilpert's Changing Venezuela by Taking Power is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this Bolivarian Revolution on its own terms. Wilpert, an American sociologist and journalist who edits the pro-Chávez website venezuelanalysis.com, provides a comprehensive, nuanced and insightful assessment of the government's policies, examining what they have accomplished and where they have fallen short. Chávez's most popular innovation has been his massive investment in new social programs. Rather than rely on dysfunctional state institutions to administer these programs, Chávez decided in 2003 to circumvent them, launching a series of "missions" accountable directly to the president's office alone. The missions employ volunteers, temporary workers and foreign professionals to provide poor communities like those in the hills of Catia with the basic services the state failed for years to deliver. The most popular of these missions are health posts in poor communities staffed by at least 10,000 Cuban medics. Several others have focused on education, providing preschool to tens of thousands of children as well as elementary education to millions of adults.
Expensive social programs are nothing new to Venezuela. President Carlos Andrés Pérez's grandiose attempt to create "Great Venezuela" during the oil boom of the 1970s saw billions lavished on free healthcare, universal public education and massive public works programs. What is new, Wilpert writes, is the effort to give participants a voice in how the programs are run. Local health and education committees have assisted the work of the missions by coordinating their outreach within communities, water committees have collaborated with the state water company to increase and improve service and land committees have led efforts to title properties in poor neighborhoods. Over the past two years, about 18,000 "community councils" have been established, according to government figures, to coordinate these existing committees, draft community development plans and implement projects to address local needs.
Chávez calls this process an "explosion of popular power," and the community councils the "essence" of a new "twenty-first-century socialism." His government has put its money where his mouth is, according to Wilpert. Last year, the government reported allocating $1.5 billion in grants to more than 12,000 councils for local projects, ranging from the formation of communal banks and medical posts to the repair of streets and sewage systems. It says it will spend another $2 billion in 2008.
It's difficult to know how many of these committees and councils are fully functional or how active community participation really is. One "popular assembly" I witnessed last year was attended by more than forty neighbors, yet only two of them spoke up during the one-hour session. Another had a much smaller turnout but far more participation. What is clear is that this process has been a transformative experience for some barrio residents who do participate. Adelaida Rodriguez, a 56-year-old with a fourth-grade education, approached me after one of these meetings to tell me her story. "Before, I was too timid to speak out about these issues," she said. Rodriguez was now attending school and leading local efforts to obtain state financing to build a neighborhood cultural center for children. "It's all thanks to President Chávez that I'm here."
The "explosion" of popular power hasn't been triggered entirely from above. Local leaders and community groups have played an important role in propelling it forward in a variety of areas, including the public airwaves. After decades of being shut out by the mainstream media, a network of local activists seized upon Chávez's 1998 triumph to promote community radio stations. They worked with Chavista legislators to draft legislation on alternative media that is among the most advanced in the hemisphere. Where other governments generally ignore or actively discourage community radio stations, Venezuela's new law established the state's duty to support them by granting licenses and providing seed capital, infrastructure grants and training. Today there are more than 270 community radio stations licensed and operating in Venezuela.
If Chávez is promoting broader political participation in Venezuela, then how has he come to be regarded by so many in Venezuela and in many parts of the Americas as a dictator in the making? Part of the answer is undoubtedly the misinformation circulated by some of his opponents. As Wilpert points out, Chávez was being labeled a leftist dictator long before he had consolidated presidential power or, for that matter, done anything particularly leftist, such as redistributing land and oil wealth. The accusations initially came from Venezuelan elites who resented being excluded from power for the first time in their lives. At the same time, Chávez did help feed his strongman persona by filling top posts with military officers while routinely taking over the airwaves to berate his critics with tirades and inflammatory epithets--"weaklings," "rancid oligarchs," "traitors."
Some Chávez supporters insist the president's belligerent tone has merely echoed the opposition's. But this defense of Chávez sells him short. Chávez's success has resulted precisely from his ability to pick fights and win them. Whereas previous governments had sought, unsuccessfully, to contain the fires of discontent, Chávez has thrown gas on the flames in hopes of burning the old system down. As a Chávez supporter in a poor neighborhood in Caracas told me, "Chávez didn't divide Venezuelans. We were already divided. If the other side didn't realize it, that's because their media had covered it up by ignoring the rest of us."
The fact that Chávez's opponents didn't fully grasp this division reflects a basic irony of recent Venezuelan history: those who had built and sustained the old system of exclusion would ultimately become its victims. Isolated in their own echo chamber, the country's elite would prove as unprepared for Chávez as they had been for the Caracazo. And their isolation would contribute to the colossal miscalculations their leaders would make as they repeatedly sought to oust their democratically elected president from office over the next several years.
These efforts included the unsuccessful coup of April 11, 2002; a strike at PDVSA, the state oil company, later that year aimed at forcing Chávez's resignation; and the national referendum to recall Chávez as president in 2004. At each turn the opposition underestimated both the popularity and political acumen of the president, who egged them on with insults, exploited their outrage (and outrageousness) to rally his base and outmaneuvered their leadership with a tactical savvy reminiscent of Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping a powerful rival in the ring. Each effort to oust Chávez served only to fortify his presidency. The 2002 coup provided him with a rationale for purging the army, which would prove crucial for surviving the PDVSA strike later that year. The strike, in turn, provided him with a rationale for purging PDVSA and then channeling oil revenues into popular social programs, a move that repaid itself with the landslide "no" vote in the 2004 recall referendum. And the 2004 referendum's endorsement of Chávez's presidency prompted a demoralized opposition to withdraw from congressional elections the next year, thereby assuring that the legislature would be made up entirely of Chávez supporters.