President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is facing his strongest challenge to date this Sunday, when he faces Henrique Capriles in a re-election vote. Chavez has been in office 12 years, and has promoted a socialist revolution of sorts in the oil-rich but mostly poor South American nation. I was a cub reporter in the late 1970s at an English-language newspaper in Caracas, and only revisited the country last year. Polls are unclear, and while the results of the vote may be much closer than some are predicting, it is likely that Chavez will win re-election. It's important to understand the roots of Chavez's popularity, and also to understand the psychology of his regime.
Last year, after many years without visiting Venezuela, I traveled to Barinas state in the western ranch lands of the country, where I visited the small town of Sabaneta, Chavez's hometown. That is where I picked up my "escort," first a single man driving a government truck who followed me everywhere, and later a young pair of government security agents who tracked my movements in Barinas, and others later who followed me in Caracas. I know they were agents of the national intelligence service (Sebin) because I spoke with them and they told me so. I know I wasn't monitored because I'm any particular threat to the nation's security, but I am a freelance writer for Western publications, and Chavez is a fierce critic of the Western media, which he believes are captured by and take instructions from their capitalist owners and Washington masters.I've been fascinated by Chavez for some time. He is Latin America’s most flamboyant and, arguably, most charismatic and influential leader since Fidel Castro. His regime has received a lot of attention by the world media, European and other Western socialists, American and other academics, and fellow Latin Americans who have for decades felt neglected, abused and dominated by Washington, and justly so. Many of those who have hailed Chavez as a hero of the poor and a guiding light of the progressive left have bet their reputations and even careers on his success.
Those who oppose Chavez, led this year by center-right candidate Henrique Capriles, scion of a family publishing empire in Venezuela, also have a lot at stake. They hope to continue some of Chavez's social programs, which are mostly paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars in oil-sales revenues, while reversing the power shift to the poor and uneducated masses in Venezuela that has so upset the historical apple cart there and the centralization of power in the Executive and the socialist party. Many of Capriles's followers are (small "d") democrats who believe Chavez has concentrated powers in the country in his own hands and in those of his close associates and backers, especially members of his political party and among his close allies in the military. They also believe that the Chavez regime is as corrupt as any other in the history of Venezuela -- and Venezuela is a country that has a long tradition of government waste and corruption, fed by the massive influx of oil wealth that began in the 1950s.
In Barinas state, Chavez and his family are as powerful as any caudillo anywhere in the region. It is the center of Chavez family control. One Chavez brother is governor of Barinas state, which encompasses Sabaneta; another Chavez brother is mayor of Sabaneta; Chavez’s father is a former state governor; other family members are ensconced in a variety of state-owned or financed companies or government agencies, and own significant stretches of land in the area.
Why does any of this matter? Why is Venezuela deemed so important by Washington? For nearly five decades starting soon after World War II, Venezuela and the United States had friendly, even intimate relations. The series of moderate democratically elected administrations that governed Venezuela during the period from 1948 until the 1989 were mostly pro-American and stable in comparison to many regimes in a region convulsed by military coups and leftist revolutionaries. Venezuela's was viewed as a “model” for democracy in the hemisphere. But its democracy was largely a facade, and the country in fact was increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots; the vast gap between the wealthy and the poor became explosive. The upshot was a series of violent upheavals, including the so-called “Caracazo,” the massacre in 1989 by the military of hundreds of civilians during several days of riots in Caracas. It was a spontaneous explosion of anti-government ire occasioned by the decision by then President Carlos Andres Perez, a onetime populist and popular young president, to impose economic policies demanded by bankers and the International Monetary Fund to raise prices on foodstuffs and other essential products.
Out of that violence rose populist cries for change, and the spokesman of the movement was Hugo Chavez, a paracaidista army colonel who had led a coup attempt to overthrow Perez several years before. Perez was forced from office and elections were eventually held some months later. Chavez swept into the power vacuum and won the presidency in free and fair elections. Chavez has won two additional elections that also have been largely clean and fair, according to Jimmy Carter.
Since taking office, Chavez has concentrated powers in the executive, neutralized the judiciary, made the National Assembly (congress) largely irrelevant, overcome an effort to remove him via a recall election, won re-election and reformed the Constitution to allow him to serve indefinitely. He also has fought a recurring battle against cancer, which has weakened him and given hope to his opponents.