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Hugo Chávez and Petro Populism | The Nation

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Hugo Chávez and Petro Populism

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Despite all this, Chávez and his political allies have won seven national ballots, including the approval of a new Constitution, an overhaul of the notoriously corrupt judiciary, two national legislative elections, two presidential elections and one attempted presidential recall.

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

About the Author

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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Through it all, occasional armed clashes between hard-core Chavistas and opposition militants have left about twenty people on both sides dead or seriously wounded. And the Chávez government has enacted a media law that punishes slander with jail time and prohibits broadcast of the twenty-four-hour-a-day video loops that were an opposition favorite, drawing sharp criticism from press-freedom advocates. But there has been no major government campaign of repression, not even against the architects of the coup, many of whom are at liberty and still in Venezuela.

The barrio 23 de Enero (January 23) is to the Venezuelan left what Compton is to hip-hop: the home of its hard core. The barrio's eponym is the date of a popular uprising that took place in 1958 against dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Tucked into a Caracas valley and flowing over a few hillsides, 23 de Enero is a mix of 1950s-era cement tower blocks and the usual cinder-block homes wedged along winding staircases and walkways.

The ten- and fifteen-story tower blocks are adorned in an improbable and tatterdemalion layer of colorful laundry hanging from external drying racks or barred windows. Behind the clothes and the bars one can see lush potted plants, caged and squawking birds or household items stacked up in the tiny, overcrowded apartments. On the back sides of the towers, mounds of trash sit in and around dumpsters that are placed below long, dilapidated external garbage chutes that usually have big sections of pipe missing.

From the top of each tower flies a red-and-blue flag: the colors of the Coordinador Simón Bolívar, a powerful community organization that has its roots in the urban guerrilla movements of the 1970s and '80s. Described with the catchphrase Tupamaros, these urban partisans were really a collection of groups and factions rather than a single force, as the name would suggest.

Even today, many comrades in the barrios are still armed. A fellow journalist was pulled over by masked gunmen at a Tupamaro checkpoint in 23 de Enero during the tense days around the August 2004 referendum. The homies were making sure no escuálido thugs snuck into the 'hood to do a drive-by. They also wanted my friend to donate his videocamera to the revolution, putting a gun to his head to help him make his decision. But when adult supervision finally showed up, the muchachos running the traffic stop were persuaded to give back the camera.

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