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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Caracas

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, Febraury 21, 2003
From the Field
Paul Knox Paul


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Images from Caracas

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses a press conference in Caracas.
Photo: AFP

Anti-Chavez protesters holding national flags make a human chain around the Petroleos de Venezuela offices in Caracas on Feb. 14.
Photo: Fernando Llano/AP

Marlene Berroteran, with her face painted with the colors of Venezuela's national flag and the logo of Petroleros de Venezuela sings an opposition song at march in Caracas.
Photo: Leslie Mazoch/AP

Should Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez be supported because he's a legitimate elected leader seeking to carry out a program of social reform? Or should he be told to rein in his violent supporters, stop threatening his opponents, respect the institutions of democracy and submit to a constitutionally sanctioned vote on whether he should continue in office?

My answer: Both of the above.

That won't endear me to Mr. Chavez's opponents here, or their sympathizers in Canada. They think he crossed the line long ago -- running roughshod over the courts, relying more and more on the army, encouraging radical supporters to engage in violent battles with his opponents. As for his social program, either they don't share its goals or they think he's too incompetent to achieve them.

It also won't go down well with chavistas and their cheerleaders around the world. Many of them believe the drama unfolding in Venezuela is a replay of the early 1970s in Chile -- a popular, charismatic hero being screwed by a U.S.-backed oligarchy that wants to deny land to poor farmers, education to poor children and control over the country's resources to its people.

To both sides, I'm sorry. Many of the things Mr. Chavez set out to accomplish after he was elected in 1998 should have been done decades ago. But his insistence on dividing Venezuelans, rather than bringing them closer together, is rapidly dissipating his chances of realizing the reforms to which his supporters aspire. As for his opponents, they have no chance of dislodging him unless they reach out to poor chavistas in a way that has so far eluded them.

Let me tell you about two schools I visited in Caracas last week. One, the Miguel Antonio Caro primary school on Avenida Sucre, was an escuela bolivariana. Such schools are the pride of Mr. Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution," named for 19th-century South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. Hundreds have been set up since he was elected president in 1998.

They've kept kids in school and made life easier for working parents. Previously, many students attended classes in morning or afternoon shifts. At the bolivarianas they go all day, which solves countless child-care problems. In theory, they also get breakfast, lunch and a snack. The schools are also assigned music, art and physical-education teachers. This is supposed to fill out the day, give the regular teachers a break and at the end of a few years produce a well-rounded child.

So far, so good. At Miguel Antonio Caro, classrooms are basic but clean and reasonably bright, with lots of artwork on the walls. Parents help out in the kitchen and those with special skills are asked to do volunteer maintenance work. Several told me they had minor complaints about items such as monotonous food, but were basically happy with the setup. "I know my son is here, and I can go to work without worrying," said Yolanda Hernandez, mother of a nine-year-old.

The bolivariana philosophy is "beautiful," said principal Omaira Bandres, nursing her newborn baby as she chatted in her office. But she doubted the government would be able to extend it throughout Venezuela. "It would require a lot of food," she said. "And there are a lot of government institutions that just aren't up to speed."

Her point was underscored at another school not too far away, one that goes by the rococo name of Our Illustrious Notables. It was supposed to be turned into a bolivariana two years ago, but there's no money for food and the extra teachers are nowhere in sight.

"We've co-operated with all our local representatives, but they haven't told us when we'll get the money," said acting vice-principal Petra Blanco. Moreover, she confessed that after 25 years of teaching, she wasn't looking forward to the change. "I'm tired," she said. "And we won't be paid any more for teaching all day .... But from an educational point of view, it's good."

In other words: Ideas good, execution spotty, people wary, resources scarce. As it turns out, that's the conclusion many people have come to about the social content of chavismo.

Here's the annual report of Provea, a human-rights organization that has been around since 1989: "Progressive concepts are not always converted into effective policies .... Public social policy is repeatedly characterized by problems of planning, co-ordination, execution and monitoring. Political polarization, fostered in part by [the president], has had an impact in the decline of real incomes and the rise in unemployment, all of which translates into increased poverty."

I'm convinced that Mr. Chavez has a genuine desire to address the grievances piled up over decades of corrupt, incompetent administration that preceded him. But he's squandered much of the goodwill he enjoyed on taking office - as well as much of the revenue gained over the past three years through high world oil prices.

Popular moderate politicians and capable administrators have deserted his government. Increasingly, power is concentrated among a coterie of co-conspirators from Mr. Chavez's army days (during which he plotted unsuccessfully to overthrow the government by force) and members of small left-wing parties who forged an alliance with him before his election in 1998.

Now for the antichavista side -- world champions at playing a good hand badly. Military dissidents and business leaders staged a coup d'état last April and quickly proved they had more authoritarian instincts than Mr. Chavez. After just 48 hours, after a wave of popular protest, the army restored him to power.

A broader opposition coalition then tried the peaceful, democratic route, calling for a popular vote on whether Mr. Chavez should continue in office. The constitution allows a binding referendum as early as August of this year -- halfway through Mr. Chavez's six-year term -- if it's demanded by 20 per cent of the electorate, or about 2.3 million people. Another mechanism, a constitutional amendment reducing his term to four years, would take somewhat longer. But antichavistas thought they could force a vote sooner by calling a national work stoppage early in December. It included Venezuela's vital oil industry, which accounts for half of the government's revenue.

It turned out they'd overreached. In the barrios where Chavez supporters live, no one could afford to participate in the stoppage, nor were many inclined to do so. The president toughed it out. He fired striking white-collar workers at the state oil firm and sent the army in to guard refineries while staff called out of retirement and contract workers got them working again. The stoppage did get Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter and representatives of other countries involved in talks between government and opposition representatives. But those have so far made little progress.

Opposition leaders say they've obtained more than enough signatures to force either a recall referendum or a vote on a constitutional amendment. Judging by what I saw on Feb. 2, when they staged a massive petition-signing campaign, I'm inclined to believe them. But neither process would be easy.

To be successful, the recall move needs more votes than the four million Mr. Chavez got when he was last elected, in 2000. That means a high turnout. The amendment process, to go smoothly, would need the support of at least some members of the pro-Chavez majority in the national assembly, which is problematic.

There are other hurdles, including the fact that Venezuela currently doesn't have a functioning electoral commission to oversee any vote. The assembly is in the process of choosing its members. The Supreme Court, which might rule on the validity of any electoral challenge and which ordered key opposition leaders arrested this week, was packed with Chavez supporters some time ago. (That should be recalled in the same breath as the president's popular election victories when his democratic credentials are being judged.)

The bottom line, then, is that there seems to be enough support for a vote on Mr. Chavez's rule to satisfy the intent of the constitution. That's why I said at the outset he should submit to it, without inventing reasons to put it off. He should also stop hectoring the non-violent opposition, threatening to send its leaders to jail and gloating when they're arrested. He should condemn the death-squad-style killings of four dissidents that occurred last weekend, making it clear that his followers do not have licence to harass and murder their political opponents.

It's by no means certain that Mr. Chavez would lose a fair vote. So far the opposition has neither a strong rival candidate nor a political program that has any chance of appealing to the millions of poor Venezuelans whose votes elected the president, and who are keenly aware of their political power.

They're people like the producers at Catia TV, the community television station in a sprawling low-income district of Caracas. Previous governments tried to shut the station down; under Mr. Chavez it won legal status and a more secure financial footing. "If the opposition wins, it will roll back all the things we're winning now," said one of them, Ligia Elena Luque. "They haven't shown us a blueprint for the country that's any better than the government's."

Venezuela is far from being a dictatorship, despite the claims of some of Mr. Chavez's opponents. But it's hard to see how the president can continue on his current confrontational path without curbing political freedom, provoking an escalation of violence and accelerating his country's economic decline.

Every revolution reaches a point when the retention of power threatens to become such an overriding concern as to eclipse its original goals. That moment has arrived for Hugo Chavez. His handling of it will determine whether history remembers him as a figure who brought hope, or the embodiment of failure.

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