Published: April 2006
Venezuela According to Chávez
Hugo Chávez won the presidency of Venezuela by a landslide in 1998. Has he also won the hearts of his people?
By Alma Guillermoprieto

The best way to understand the spell the president of Venezuela casts over his fellow citizens is to do as they do every Sunday morning at eleven and settle down in front of the television in a favorite chair, with a good provision of drinks and sandwich ingredients, for a broadcast of Aló Presidente, Hugo Chávez's weekly televised communion with his country.

I watched Aló Presidente on the Sunday after the government took over a lush, well-managed cattle ranch in Chávez's home state of Barinas. Tongues wagged when it became known that in a long-ago interview Chávez had said that his grandfather had lived on this 20,000-acre ranch, La Marqueseña, and had tried for years to get the legal deed. But the Agriculture Ministryexplained that La Marqueseña was being taken over only because too much of its land lay idle, and because the owner, whose father had bought the property in 1949, could provide land titles from the colonial period but not for 1821—the year Simón Bolívar freed Venezuela from Spain.

As it happened, I'd visited La Marqueseña on the day of the government takeover. In the shade of samán and ceiba trees, workers who had been locked out since the day before put on a soup kettle and, eyeing the troops guarding the grounds, wondered if they would beallowed back in. They told me they considered the owner, Carlos Azpúrua, to be an excellent land manager. "It's false that we're exploited here," one of them said. "It's the only cattle concern around these parts where the owner lets you do your work without breathing down your neck all the time."

Another chimed in: "On payday they never say, ‘We can't pay you because we're broke.'" On the whole, Azpúrua was considered a fair man.

On the day of this particular Aló Presidente broadcast, the owner, having fought a long and unsuccessful legal battle against the takeover, was refusing to vacate the premises, but Chávez moved in nevertheless, with camera crews and musicians and admirers from around the world, to announce from this spot the beginning of a reinforced land reform campaign.

The weather was calm, the view of the green land was exquisite, and the president was in a happy mood. "What a pretty woods this is! What fertile land, what good land! What a beautiful landscape that dawned this morning here in the savanna!" he said, greeting television viewers and also a local audience of perhaps a hundred people that included his father, who is the governor of Barinas. Possibly intoning a poem of his own, he continued, "This is where the immense Andean mountains embrace and kiss the infinite Venezuelan plain!"

Dressed in a dark green shirt that looked military, at ease in the steaming heat, Chávez addressed the camera without interruption for the next six hours. First-time viewers of Aló Pre-sidente might think that he rambles, even tends toward the delirious, but in fact he never loses sight of the central message. His warm-up on this occasion was typical: "What we must say, repeating Don Quixote's maxim, is, ‘If the dogs are barking at us, it is because we are galloping.' . . . And let us gallop, as Christ said. I think I am more Christian every day . . . and now I've got Fidel on the right path. Fidel is a Christian when it comes to social concerns." Fidel Castro, who is his mentor and best friend.

The monologue segued to history lessons—Chávez has admirable command of the military exploits of Simón Bolívar, the "liberator of the Americas," who is his greatest hero—plus a bit of audience participation, and a couple of short videos. There was also a brief account of the progress being made in the oil sector by the state-owned corporation Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). He used figures previous PDVSA managers would no doubt dispute.

But between meanderings, Chávez returned, time and again, to the same point: Large landholders should reconcile themselves to the fact that much of their land will be taken over—because there will be no turning back. "I appeal to those people who say they are owners of great expanses of land to accept a reality and not to let somebody . . . fill their hearts with hatred, or the hearts of their relatives, their children, their families, their friends. Because the usual suspects, the lackeys of imperialism who own television stations here, who own newspapers, who have radio stations . . . are trying to use this moment to try to take us again to a situation of open conflict . . . so that they can ask again, as they have before, for the intervention of peacemakers from North America. And now that the United Nations talks about the right to protect and the right to reconstruct countries—well, that fits their purpose like a glove."

There was more talk about Bolívar and about Chávez's beloved grandmother Rosa Inés and the stories she had told him of his grandfather at La Marqueseña, and his own memories of the ranch when he was a young army officer stationed nearby. Chávez made a friendly appeal to its owner, Azpúrua ("a decent man"), to stay calm. There were any number of plans and programs announced for the ranch and other ranches to be confiscated soon: a training center for cattle breeding, agribusiness and model villages for the campesinos, coffee and cacao plantations in a forest on the premises (part of the ranch is a government wildlife preserve). There was even an acknowledgment that, given the turmoil of the wars of independence and the internecine civil wars of the 19th century, few people in the countryside were actually in possession of proper title to their land.

Then there was a definitive, explicit statement: "If someone doesn't want [to reach an agreement with us], he can go to the courts, but we're going to ask you for all the [documents] from 1821, and if [the property] wasn't registered in 1821. . . ." Here Chávez made the sound of a piece of paper being torn in half. But what Chávez demands doesn't exist: The fledgling government didn't get around to issuing titles until decades later.

Six hours after he joyfully greeted the Venezuelan people, an obviously happy Chávez called Aló Presidente a wrap. As the cameras pulled away to show the fertile grasslands of La Marqueseña, he strolled over to where a quartet of local musicians was waiting to perform the lyrical, lilting music of the Venezuelan savanna and joined them in song.

Last September I spent a day in the com-pany of a young woman, Trinidad Ramírez, from a poor barrio in Caracas, talking about her neighborhood, her life, and the president of her nation. Her barrio, La Vega, is one of the hundreds of poor areas that occupy the steep hillsides ringing the Caracas valley. Across it, the prominence of Monte Ávila can be seen from some angles, and, in its shade, some of the pricier real estate in the prosperous capital of Venezuela. Due north, hidden from view by the Ávila, lie the clear waters of the Caribbean. Below are the shimmering office buildings of the business district. Once, these hillsides were lush, but that was decades before millions of dirt-poor campesinos from inland areas began their long migration to the capital, looking for modernity and the prosperous life. The greater part of Caracas's estimated 3.2 million people live on these now stripped inclines, and only a few twisting, potholed roads, linked to an intricate web of steep footpaths, connect the precipitous alleyways where bare-brick older dwellings and newer cardboard and tin shacks are pitched against each other at an impossible angle to the hills.

Instead of public transportation in the upper reaches of Caracas there are quite a number of privately owned rattletrap buses, and many more astoundingly decrepit jeeps, which for a few pennies will allow a dozen unfortunate passengers to wedge themselves onto low wooden benches nailed to the floor behind the driver's seat and hold on for dear life. I sat in one of these vehicles with Ramírez, hitting my head against the roof at every bounce, and tried to concentrate on what she was saying about Hugo Chávez, the army man who in 1992 attempted to stage a coup against the elected president of his country, and then went on to win the presidency himself, by a landslide, in 1998.

Seven years later, Chávez, 51, is more in control than ever—and Ramírez was experiencing moral conflict. She had been brought up in the fold of a progressive Catholic church, which has had an ongoing, and effective, educational mission in La Vega for many years, and she has been involved in community work since adolescence, tutoring children from the poorest homes in the barrio who have such trouble behaving that they cannot stay in school. The words "community" and "solidarity" have been deeply meaningful to her since long before Chávez came on the scene, but now, she said, here was Chávez, making his enormous presence felt in La Vega with his Bolivarian Revolution and his own solidarity programs and his big budgets and his community projects (known also as misiónes), seemingly for every need: medical misiónes staffed round the clock with Cuban doctors, sports misiónes for the kids, supermarket misiónes for all the poor, where they can buy food at cost.

As if she were still struggling with the issue, she said that she could not approve of the Cha-vistas' radicalized view of society, in which the rich are evil, the poor are sainted, and those who disagree with the president are enemies. Nor was she sure that Hugo Chávez could be called a democrat. For these reasons, many of her friends in La Vega were less than wild about him. "But I'm a Chavista," she said at last, and it was easy to see why. She had so many more opportunities now. All her life she had practiced folkloric dance and had longed for a formal education, and now here she was coordinating a misión cultura, which encouraged young people in La Vega to form community folk dance and music groups. Thanks to another misión, she was working toward a college equivalency degree and receiving a monthly stipend in addition to the training. More important than that—much more important—she said, "Con Chávez tengo mi lugar—With Chávez I have a place where I belong. Before, we, the poor, were nothing. Now we are recognized." How could she deny the excitement and loyalty that made her feel?

So the conquest of the poor by Hugo Chávez has progressed year after year, although his opposition at home and abroad would no doubt like to tell Ramírez that the changes in her own life are the result of profligate squandering of oil money on short-term fixes for deep-rooted problems, that the president will be respectful and considerate of her needs and opinions only as long as those opinions favor him, and that Venezuela's leader is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the world at large. These are only dire predictions for a distant future, whereas Chávez's offer of help for people in urgent need is for right now.

With the support of millions of Venezuelans like Trinidad Ramírez, Chávez, the hallucinatory speaker, has gone from freak to phenomenon—an overwhelming figure who will cast a long shadow over Latin American politics for many years to come. How did that happen?

Certainly, the skinny backwoods kid who joined the military, he has often said, as a way to get to Caracas to play baseball in the big leagues did not look promising when he first took a handful of confused leftish political notions and knotted them into a plot to stage a coup, but he was helped immensely by his country's history. Following a long series of military dictatorships that had poisoned its political life since declaring independence from the Spanish crown in 1811, Venezuela had evolved into Latin America's most stable democracy, as it liked to boast to the world. (Although some might have pointed out that Costa Rica, say, had gone considerably farther along that road, and without the benefit of the oil gusher that fueled Venezuela's roaring economy.)

Starting with the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, last of the military dictators, in 1958, Venezuela undertook the construction of something like a welfare state; some give credit to Pérez Jiménez himself for starting the process. Although tremendous problems of social inequality were not addressed, and racial prejudice continued to take its toll on social mobility (Chávez, who has a typical mixture of Spanish, African, and Amerindian blood, is still regularly described as "that half-breed" among the upper classes), in that time Venezuela was transformed from a country with an impoverished, mostly rural, population of seven million to one of the healthiest nations in Latin America, with a life expectancy of 74 and an outstanding literacy rate among a people nevertheless condemned to live largely in the barrios.

But when world oil prices sank, as they do periodically, and the rate of growth of the population outstripped the government's investment in health, education, and public works, Venezuelans lost their trust in a government that belonged largely to the elites. Carlos Andrés Pérez, a president who ruled lavishly during the 1970s oil boom—and, it would seem, to his own lavish profit as well—was reelected in 1988, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, on the strength of people's faith that he could bring the good times back. What he did instead, in February 1989, was announce a package of stern economic measures that included an immediate increase in public transport fares. The first riots in Venezuela's modern history followed. Hundreds were killed when the president ordered out troops to fire on the people, something that had not occurred since the days of dictatorship, and Venezuelans felt they no longer recognized their own country.

Three years later, Hugo Chávez, by then a loquacious and single-minded lieutenant colonel with a significant following in the officer corps, tried to topple Carlos Andrés Pérez in a coup. The coup failed, but history was made. Chávez was thin and well behaved then, in a way that brought out many women's mothering instincts, and possessed of an emotional intensity that coursed like lightning through the exhausted political scene. He did two years' prison time and left the army on his release, well-known to just about anyone who had turned on the television during the hours of his uprising. At election time in 1998, voters would remember not the hothead who had sought to destroy an elected government through force but the fiery upstart with proud military bearing who had promised to overturn a corrupt and tired system. With no political base of his own and a brand-new party, Chávez beat his opponent by a margin of more than 15 percent. Not even his supporters understood then what they had set in motion.

In the intervening years, Chávez has actively involved himself with every aspect of his nation's life. He decides where to place an agricultural cooperative on the overtaken cattle ranch and what produce will be grown there, how to allocate foreign currency reserves, and what construction projects get priority in the housing ministry. He announces these changes on the weekly television program and then improvises a few more. Voters who have already given him three strong electoral victories feel passionately about the man they address face-to-face simply as "Chávez." The opposition's feelings about him are, if anything, even stronger. Many analysts say he has radicalized and divided the citizenry. On the other hand, Chávez's followers believe that he has revealed, and refused to accept, the real divisions in Venezuela.

Many of the most dramatic changes in the country since Hugo Chávez came to power were signed into law in the Capitolio, a grand 19th-century compound in the center of Caracas where the National Assembly—the legislative branch—holds session. A couple of blocks away is the house where Simón Bolívar was born in 1783. Bolívar, who dreamed of a great Pan-American republic, is not just Chávez's hero; he appears regularly on altars and shrines in Venezuelan homes. Yet in his final years he lived in poverty, rejected by the politicians he had helped bring to power, who were emerging as satraps and petty warlords. Bolívar lamented that he had "plowed the seas." Still, the Capitolio, with its classic proportions and its French republi-can architecture, remains a symbol of the great Andean nation the hero envisioned.

At his inauguration in 1999, Chávez swore to overturn the "moribund" 1961 constitution. Six months later, in elections for delegates to his Constituent Assembly, members of his party or those allied with it won 125 of the 131 seats. The assembly's task was to create a constitution that would facilitate Chávez's concept of democracia participativa. But Carlos Correa, a lawyer who is the general coordinator of the respected human rights organization Provea, is among those who are not persuaded by the results. "There is a great deal of talk about democracy now, but in practice all decisions are concentrated in the president's hands, down to his own party's lists of candidates," Correa said. Even the armed forces now answer more directly to Chávez. "In the past all high-ranking promotions were reviewed by the Senate Armed Services Commission. Now, by law, they're reviewed directly by the president."

The assembly also made it nearly impossible for opposition parties to participate in elections on equal terms with the sitting candidates, because the new constitution removed all provisions for government funding of electoral campaigns. In one of the articles of the constitution that appears to have been designed expressly for Chávez, delegates passed legislation that allows presidents to stand for immediate reelection and extended the term of office from five to six years. (Chávez is the all-but-certain winner of elections scheduled for December 2006.) The new constitution also reduced the space for dissent by replacing the old bicameral Congress with a unicameral National Assembly. Their work finished, the delegates called presidential, municipal, and state elections (in which Hugo Chávez was reelected), and elections to the new National Assembly, in which Chavistas again won a majority.

But as Correa points out, the institutional alterations did not end with the Constituent Assembly. He is particularly concerned about modifications voted by the Chavista legislators that allow new members of the Supreme Court to be confirmed by a simple majority. The high court is now Chavista, and since the National Assembly also appoints all judges, the justice system in Venezuela has become almost entirely pro-Chávez. All in all, the result of the new constitution, Correa said, "has been the greatest institutionalized concentration of power in a single man in Venezuela's history." But there is more to come: In elections last December, in which nearly all the major opposition parties refused to participate, the Chavista parties won all the assembly seats, and they are expected to approve Chávez's call for a new constitutional assembly, whose main task will be to allow a president to be reelected an indefinite number of times, along with another change dear to Chávez's heart: the redesign of the national seal to show Simón Bolívar's horse charging leftward.

During an assembly session last September, a roiling, deafening tumult was in progress, but Iris Varela was one of the few asambleistas who was not yelling, arguing, and otherwise ignoring the assembly president's repeated pleas for silence and respect. Varela, one of Chávez's key operators on the assembly floor, was instead taking notes, and listening, and talking into the chairman's ear. She is known as Comandante Matchhead for her red hair and inflammable temper, and after less than a minute of conversation I understood the nickname but found her hard to dislike—she was so young and dead earnest and lively. In a common room where we could hear each other, I asked in what way she thought that chavismo, with its overwhelming majority in the assembly, and its weight in the court system and in the media—in which the largest circulation by far belongs to a pro-Chávez newspaper, and the president can monopolize the airwaves for hours on end—in what way, I asked, did chavismo think it could best guarantee the rights of the opposition?

Varela's eyes flashed. "If there were a patriotic opposition," she began, "they would play a leading role. But they are only interested in getting the United States to intervene here," and in plotting coups. (A partially successful coup removed Chávez from power for three days in 2002.) "They don't have sensible proposals to make. They do not make the cause of the people their own!"

I suggested that a member of the opposition might legitimately have different sympathies and political opinions from a Chavista. "But they don't denounce the right things!" Varela exclaimed. "Like corruption—they could take up the flag of that noble cause. They never go beyond denouncing a scandal, and when that scandal is extinguished, they bring on another scandal. That's why we reformed the penal code, so that they won't be defaming us with impunity," she said triumphantly. Indeed, the new reform mandates up to five years in jail for crimes by the media that range from disrespecting the president to inciting panic—offenses that could at whim include unflattering photographs, nasty political cartoons, and vaudeville sketches, as far as I could tell.

Varela speaks faster as her indignation mounts, and at last I had to ask if she could slow down and, pretending for a moment that the opposition didn't exist, simply address the question of human rights. Varela smiled and made an effort, but within seconds she was at full gallop again, denouncing the noted human rights lawyer Carlos Ayala, who, on the basis of pitifully slight evidence, was being charged with conspiring to overthrow the Chávez regime during the 2002 coup. Varela stated fiercely that, if he had been charged, the proof against him must exist. (Charges against Ayala have since been dropped, but the investigation is still open.)

Finally I asked what her constituents expected from her back in Táchira, a state that borders Colombia and has many, and complicated, problems, including an incipient drug trade, use of its territory by guerrillas, and high immigration rates. Varela thought for a moment and answered, in her fiery way, "Loyalty!" Anything else? "Unconditional loyalty, and hard work," she said.

As Varela headed back to her assembly session, a photographer I'd met earlier caught up with me. "You missed it," he said with a grin, and then he and his colleagues showed me pictures they'd taken minutes earlier, which showed Congressman X, a Chavista, beaning Congressman Y, an oppositionist.

This too was a novelty of the Chávez era. The two parties—one liberal, one conservative—that ceremoniously rotated power between themselves during the entire second half of the 20th century made an entrenched vice of cronyism and the distribution of privilege, but congressional fistfights and politics as the art of denouncing enemies were not the custom before.

The president of Venezuela has many enemies—partly, at least, because he so clearly relishes the fight. In late 2002 the anti-Chavista workers and managers of Petróleos de Venezuela joined forces to stage a two-month strike, crippling the Venezuelan economy. The president sought to take control of the company by firing nearly half its workforce, but there is no way to tell whether those who got to keep their jobs are any more loyal to him now than they were before the strike. The middle classes appear to be almost unanimous in their hatred of him. Doctors have marched in the street against him, demanding better wages. An unknown number of military personnel—including several army officers I interviewed—dislike Chávez and his leftist politics intensely, if not openly (many others joined forces to lead the coup against him in 2002 and have since been discharged). For the moment, however, the aggregate numbers of his enemies don't add up to an opposition, and they have lost every battle so far.

In fact, his opponents told me repeatedly, Chávez has so many enemies that if it weren't for oil, he would no longer be in power. Oil is by far the largest source of foreign income: From 1928 to 1970, Venezuela was the largest oil exporter in the world. The country ranks fifth now, but there is more oil money than ever. The war in Iraq and gradually shrinking oil reserves worldwide have combined to push the price of oil from just over nine dollars a barrel the year Chávez took power to a recent high of more than sixty. The misiónes programs could hardly exist without this extravagant income.

Is oil really the key to Chávez's success? His supporters say that previous regimes used the rivers of oil wealth that streamed through the economy for their exclusive profit, but no one else seriously claims that the new elites—with their gleaming Mercedes-Benzes, flashy watches, hunger for pricey real estate, and, above all, their direct access to the budget—lead austere lives. It is also said that only oil has allowed Chávez to get away with his anti-U.S. policies and his cheeky foreign-policy rhetoric: Venezuela's head of state publicly called President Bush a pendejo—in Venezuela, a moron, a jerk—but sales of oil to the U.S. have continued at their same smooth pace during the years that Chávez has been insulting Bush.

Oil money and heavy public spending help explain what is happening in Venezuela, of course, but in the end only Chávez can account for Chávez. The sheer force of his personality, the astonishing and overwhelming strength of his self-satisfaction, his utter lack of inhibitions, his inflamed nationalism, his obsessive need to cast himself as a hero of the people, forever vanquishing the "demonios" (demons) that conspire against him and against the Venezuelan nation, are a hypnotic and unique combination.

Every time Hugo Chávez throws his weight around on the world scene, the admiration of poor people everywhere will likely increase. Venezuela's leader may be unpredictable and unreliable, but he is an outstanding politician, and he has understood an essential lesson that lesser, or more cautious, politicians ignore at their risk: The world has many times more poor people like the young barrio activist Trinidad Ramírez, so desperate for a future, than rich people like the cattle rancher Carlos Azpúrua, so anxious to conserve the past.