Hugo Chávez and Petro Populism | The Nation


Hugo Chávez and Petro Populism

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Guerrero started supporting Chávez in 1992, on that fateful day when the then-unknown 37-year-old colonel launched a failed coup of his own. When defeat appeared imminent, Chávez surrendered. To avoid a bloodbath he went on television and asked his compatriots who were still holding two cities to put down their weapons.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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During that short live broadcast Chávez did two things that electrified the Venezuelan imagination. First, he took personal responsibility for the botched coup. This seemed to many viewers like a significant break from the standard political tradition of lying and blaming others for failure. Then, in explaining the defeat, Chávez said, "For now, the objectives that we have set for ourselves have not been achieved."

During the next two years, while Chávez was in prison studying, that key phrase--"for now," or por ahora in Spanish--became a rallying cry, a slogan of defiance painted on walls, a talisman of hope in an otherwise squalid and corrupt political landscape.

Guerrero's sentiments, down to the details about the coup and the por ahora speech, were echoed again and again in dozens of interviews throughout some of Caracas's poorest slums. The majority of people here--ranging from formerly apolitical housewives to hard-core veterans of the urban guerrilla movements of the 1970s--revere President Chávez. They view him as a political saint, a savior, the embodiment of a new national ideal.

But through Guerrero's open front door we can see the Modernist towers of offices, banks, hotels and luxury apartments in the other Caracas, a city that has grown fat on the vast oil fortunes flowing from Venezuela's subsoil.

It is this contrast between rich and poor--a contrast so visually obvious as to make the landscape of Caracas feel almost didactic--that animates Venezuelan politics. And in the other Caracas, the one with the country clubs, the citizens hate Chávez with an ardor as strong as the devotion one finds for him in the barrios. Just as the urban poor and campesinos love Chávez because of his swarthy, indigenous looks, tight curly hair and his rough, down-to-earth talk, so too are the wealthier classes driven apoplectic with rage by the fact that their president looks likes a construction worker or cab driver.

For six years Chávez and his supporters have battled this opposition, an enemy that Chávez has nicknamed los escuálidos, or "the weaklings." But the opposition has not always been so weak. It includes the privately owned mass media, which have been virulently and propagandistically hostile to the government, devoting days at a time to commercial-free attacks on it as "totalitarian" and "Castro communist." There was the armed coup, then the oil strike, which cost the economy an estimated $7.5 billion and led to severe shortages of gas, food and beer. As one consultant in the Planning Ministry said in all seriousness: "I thought the day we ran out of beer would be the day the country fell into anarchy and civil war."

There was also a prolonged public protest by a group of respected former generals who urged active soldiers to rebel. Then there was a series of violent protests by rightist street fighters calling themselves the Guarimbas, who set up burning barricades during early 2004.

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