The Venezuelan president is fast establishing a totalitarian regime. How can he be stopped?

MICHAEL PETROU November 5 2007


The Venezuelan president is fast establishing a totalitarian regime. How can he be stopped?

MICHAEL PETROU November 5 2007



The Venezuelan president is fast establishing a totalitarian regime. How can he be stopped?


THE BATTLE LINES in Venezuela run through the hills of Caracas. The country’s capital stretches 20 km along a mountain valley bristling with the financial engines of business and commerce. But ever since the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez, the flamboyant, charming, anti-American and increasingly autocratic president of Venezuela, real power

rests in the hills. The hills hold the barrios, violent slums and shantytowns perched above the heart of the city. Here, and in similar places across the country, Chávez draws his most ardent supporters among those who feel—with good reason—that Venezuela’s traditional politicians ignored them during the decades of democracy that began in 1958.

Chávez pledged to change this. The career military officer, who led a failed coup in 1992, compared himself to Simón Bolívar, the hero of Latin America’s wars of independence, and promised a socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” to lift the poor out of their squalor. He vowed to stand up to the United States and has long been a thorn in the side of George W. Bush, whom he describes as the devil, even as America buys most of Venezuela’s oil. Chávez has also embarrassed the U.S. President by spending millions of dollars on aid projects in poor American neighbourhoods, and

he regularly seeks the friendship of other world leaders in U.S. crosshairs, most notably Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

At home, Chávez ordered the army to distribute food and vaccinate children. He established “missions” where residents can buy subsidized groceries or receive free health care at clinics that are often staffed by Cuban doctors sent to Venezuela in exchange for cheap oil. Other missions teach literacy or provide land titles to urban squatters. “We’re taking control of our country,” Nelson Becerra, a chávista from the Guarataro slum of Caracas, told Maclean’s. “We’ve had 40 years of misery. Now we want freedom.”

But after almost nine years of the Chávez presidency, and despite booming oil wealth, many Venezuelans still live in miserable conditions. Others resent the president’s tightening grip on power and his efforts to silence those who oppose him. For a new generation of opposition politicians in Venezuela, this presents an opportunity to erode Chávez’s still-strong support base.

Defeating Chávez means winning the slums. One man willing to try is Leopoldo López, the 36-year-old mayor of Chacao, a small and prosperous municipality in Caracas. Articu-

late and—even his female opponents on the far left admit—very handsome, López is emerging as one of the more prominent challengers to Chávez’s rule.

For his efforts, López has had more than 20 charges filed against him, ranging from the alleged mismanagement of funds to “ecocide” after he replanted trees, which he claims are now thriving elsewhere in his municipality. He is officially barred from running in another election until 2017. More seriously, López has survived a kidnapping and three assassination attempts. During the most

recent, last year, bodyguard Carlos Mendosa was shot six times in the passenger seat of their car, where López usually sits. “He died in my arms,” López told Maclean’s.

López positively identified the murderer, yet the man spent only one hour in police custody before he was released, “ft all suggests something with somebody close to the government,” he said. “Because it is unexplainable how, if we caught the assassin, if we

have material proof that this guy was responsible for the assassination, he was let free.” Lopez’s car still has the bullet holes, now rusting slightly around the edges. A friend

says she doubts he will ever get them fixed.

Many anti-chávistas have little faith in electoral politics. Hundreds of thousands of them backed an attempted coup against Chávez in 2002 that failed when chávistas poured into the streets and loyal members of the military rescued Chávez, who’d been detained by rebellious officers. And today, opponents point to anti-democratic manipulations employed by Chávez to help ensure his victory in the December 2006 presidential election, which nonetheless passed the scrutiny of international observers. According to Inter-

national Crisis Group, a global think tank, these included the use of soldiers to wake residents in the barrios on election day and urge them to vote for the president, and blan-

ket positive coverage for Chávez by government-controlled news channels. For some, this is proof that any election in which Chávez runs will be fixed in advance, and other means to defeat him are necessary, “The armed forces need to make a decision,”

one 28-year-old unemployed woman in Caracas told Maclean’s. “One day he’ll pay for everything he’s doing to the country. I’d be the first to welcome his assassination.” Another

woman, a teacher, claimed a former student told her that he and his comrades would love to overthrow Chávez. “They are, I hope, waiting for the right moment,” she said. “I pray for him always.”

López is different. “Some people are calling for an insurrection. This won’t take us anywhere,” he said in a recent speech. “The only way to avoid a totalitarian

state is to organize ourselves to build a majority. It’s a long-term marathon that will end when we transform Venezuela.”

Maclean’s accompanied López and a throng of supporters on a visit to the Guarataro slum, a chávista redoubt where abundant graffiti lauds Chávez and Che Guevara, and where the occasional dead rat rots on crumbling roads and walking paths. Guarataro is outside Lopez’s municipality, but he belongs to a national political party, Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era), and is promoting what he describes as a social democratic alterna-

tive to the authoritarian socialism of Hugo Chávez. Every week, three or four times a week, he spends time in the barrios.

López was in Guarataro to rally support for Redes Populares, grassroots networks of volunteers and activists set up as an alternative to the “communal councils” established by Chávez. The councils are ostensibly nonpartisan organizations designed to coordinate local projects with the national government, but are often indistinguishable from Chávez’s socialist party and are used to funnel money and benefits to his supporters. “We don’t go to the barrios to do tourism,”

López said. “We are in the barrios. Our people are there, and we need to give them more support. Moral support, because unlike the government, which has a lot of things to give outemployment, social benefits, salaries, promises—we can only give people hope and the possibility to be part of a movement that brings to Venezuela true democracy and the possibility that all rights are for all people.”

Lopez’s foray into the Chávez stronghold began well. He is a natural glad-hander, and most residents of the slum were pleased to see him, shake his hand or kiss him on the cheek, and chat briefly. A few Chávez supporters appeared, to denounce López as a fascist or a coup-monger. Others shouted, “Viva Chávez!” from their balconies. “Sure, in Cuba,” Lopez’s supporters shot back.

López paused his tour at the Cajigal School, deep in the slum. Banners promoting Chávez’s party adorned its walls, and raw sewage flooded its basketball court. The school was a powerful visual prop, and López used it to

Chávez intends to create a military reserve outside of the normal armed forces structure. Critics call it a ‘political army.’

denounce the sorry state of basic services in the slums and the politicization of education under Chávez. Earlier this year, Venezuelan television showed high-school students chanting “fatherland, socialism, or death!” and singing songs that praised the president. “We believe in social democracy, not authoritarian socialism,” López said in a short, rhythmic speech in front of the school. “We believe in educational pluralism, not ideological education. Is this 21st-century socialism—schools in this condition?”

By this time, however, local chávistas had begun to organize themselves. A few, higher on the mountain above the school, threw rocks. Others, wearing red T-shirts, the uni-

form of the revolution, banged pots to prevent López from being heard, or rushed at López and his supporters, throwing plastic bottles and buckets of water. One tried to knock a camera out of the hands of a Macleans reporter. López was unfazed. He finished his speech, his inspection of the school, and his tour of the slum.

“Of course the threat is there. But our commitment needs to be stronger than fear,” López said when asked if he worries about his safety. “If we let ourselves be moved by fear, we’ll stay in our homes and we won’t build a new majority. We need to build a majority in the streets, with the people, close to the problems. And if there is a threat against me, there is also a threat against the people who are working with us, the people who are living in the barrios, who make their homes in front of all the members of their community. So how could I not be there, supporting them, if they are also under threat? It’s a risky reality, but it’s the only one.”

LEOPOLDO LÓPEZ, and others committed to the long slog of building an electoral majority, might be brave, but are they practical? Is there a genuine chance that the opposition could defeat Chávez in an election, and peacefully transition into power?

“The illusion exists,” says Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan political analyst and the author of several books on Chávez. “But Chávez will never lose an election because of this absolute concentration of power. The judicial branch, the National Assembly, are all chávistas [the opposition boycotted the 2005 vote]. The tactic is winning the election. The strategy is the revolution. A revolution is not to achieve power only to lose it in an election. The revolution has arrived to stay—like in China, like Cuba.”

Chávez’s supporters describe the concentration of power in his hands as direct, or

participatory, democracy. There are the people, and there is the president. Too many intermediaries, as exists in a representative democracy, or checks and balances, as exist in most any democracy, dilute power and stall the political process. But Chávez has also claimed it would be a tragedy if revolutionary change in Venezuela were to depend on an authoritarian strongman, a caudillo. “I am but a light feather dragged along by the revolutionary hurricane,” he said in 2002, attributing the phrase to Simón Bolívar.

The truth, though, is that in Venezuela, Chávez is the hurricane. He drives all change in his country, and is methodically removing barriers that might check or oppose him. His methods include politicizing the judiciary, which is now essentially under his control, weakening regional government, and attempt-

ing to muzzle hostile media. His decision not to renew the licence of RCTV, a critical television station that is now available only on cable, sent a clear message to other networks— most of which have now learned to parrot the government line—even as international media and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, denounced the move.

RCTV tacitly supported the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, in the eyes of some a disgraceful episode in the station’s long history. The network gave blanket coverage to anti-Chávez demonstrations that preceded the coup, but after the military rebels kidnapped Chávez and his supporters flooded the streets to demand his return, RCTV imposed a news blackout and broadcast cartoons and soap operas. As a result, many chávistas celebrated when RCTV was banned from the public airwaves earlier this year. But others recognized it as a politically motivated attack on free speech, and thousands demonstrated in Caracas. “We hit the streets because of that,” said Jessica Valero, 22, a student who voted for Chávez in 2006. “It was the first time I ever protested. That was the drop that overflowed the bucket.”

But the targets of intimidation by the Chávez government extend far beyond journalists and media moguls. Ordinary Venezuelans who voice their opposition to Chávez can find their livelihoods put at risk and job opportunities smothered.

Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, adopted less than one year into the Chávez presidency, allowed for a presidential recall referendum to be held should 20 per cent of registered

voters sign a petition demanding one. Such a referendum, which ultimately failed to revoke Chávez’s mandate, took place in 2004During the drive to collect signatures, Chávez warned: “Those who sign against Chávez will sign against the fatherland and will be registered for all history, as they will have to

provide their name, surname, identification number and fingerprint.” This proved to be more than an empty threat. Following the referendum, Luis Tascón, a chávista member of the National Assembly, posted on his website the names and identity card numbers of the more than two million Venezuelans who had signed the petition. Many subsequently complained of discrimination, such as the loss of public sector jobs and blocked access to public assistance programs.

Most chávista politicians deny that the “Tascón list” is used to discriminate against anyone seeking work in the public sector. But

He's targeted the media, but even ordinary Venezuelans who have expressed opposition find it impossible to get work

a close and long-time ally of Chávez set the record straight. Retired major-general Alberto Müller Rojas has known Hugo Chávez since the president was an intern in his army battalion more than 30 years ago. He led Chávez’s election campaign in 1998 and was Chávez’s chief of staff until June. Over 70 years old, likeable, animated, and with a passing resemblance to René Lévesque, Müller Rojas met with Maclean’s on the porch of his modest mountaintop villa, where he reclined in a hammock, chainsmoked, and once broke off the interview to pad indoors and retrieve a book detailing CIA meddling in Latin America. He said he has a daughter in Winnipeg but is particu-

larly fond of the Quebecanos. “Because they, like me, believe vive le Québec librel”

Müller Rojas admitted that the government consults the Tascón list when considering someone for employment in what he described as strategically sensitive positions, such as in the oil, steel and gas industries. “We need to make sure that our government is not penetrated by those who want to change it by violent means,” he said. “I’m sure that the Canadian or American government would not accept a Communist. We don’t accept fascists. Those who signed the petition were committed to the violent overthrow of the government.”

When challenged on the point that surely the more than two million people who signed the recall petition could not be violent fascists, Müller Rojas raised his voice for the only time during the interview, sat up, and accidentally dropped cigarette ash on his shoulder. “Those who signed the list are living in a paradise here in Venezuela,” he said. “This is gross, insulting propaganda from the Empire,” he said, using the common chávista term for the U.S.

Among the signatories to the recall petition was the daughter of Josefina Urbina, 60, resident of the poverty-stricken La Vega barrio and a dedicated chávista. Urbina spent an afternoon proudly showing Maclean’s around the various missions in her neighbourhood, including a subsidized market where some residents had been lining up for hours to purchase food.

Urbina’s daughter is unemployed. But

Urbina has a friend in the foreign ministry who told her he could get her daughter a job. The man tried, then reported back to Urbina that her daughter’s name was on the Tascón list and she was unemployable. But like many of Chávez’s supporters, Urbina would not criticize him directly. “The president is not to blame for a lot of things that happen in the country,” she said. “The fault is with those around him. He is often deceived.”

HUGO CHÁVEZ’S ultimate defence against losing power may rest with military force, rather than the intimidation of the media and political opponents. The military is already a major political actor in Venezuela, and its integration in the Bolivarian Revolution is deepening. After senior military officers tried to overthrow Chávez in 2002, he systematically purged the armed forces of potentially disloyal elements. During a 2003 nationwide strike that threatened to break Chávez’s hold on power, the military blunted its effects by distributing goods and services, and by keeping the state oil company running.

As for democracy, says one member of a barrio militia, ‘If Chávez lost in an election, there would be an armed struggle’

Chávez has also created a national reserve, which will be renamed the Bolivarian Popular Militia if a new set of constitutional changes are approved in an upcoming referendum. The reserve forces operate outside the normal military command structure, and Chávez’s critics say they will function as a parallel militia to protect the Bolivarian Revolution should Chávez lose the loyalty of the regular armed forces. “This military reserve is created with people who are politically checked. It’s a political army,” says Teodoro Petkoff,

editor of Tal Cual newspaper and a former presidential candidate.

Rafael Gil Barrios, a member of the National Assembly and president of the defence commission, confirmed to Maclean’s that reservists are given ideological training. But he insisted this doesn’t mean the reserves are an explicitly political organization, because, he says, all Venezuelans have a duty to learn about Bolivarian socialism.

Armed groups ready to defend the revolution already flourish outside the official fabric

of the military. The hillside slums of Caracas have long been home to radical political organizations and irregular militias. Alberto Garrido, the political analyst, believes that these groups would form the backbone of an insurgency in the event of an American invasion or an internal coup. Maclean ’s visited one such group, the Alexis Vive collective, which is based in the 23 de Enero barrio of Caracas. The group takes its name from a man who was killed in the chaos of the 2002 coup attempt. Its headquarters are surrounded by colourful

murals on nearby walls, including one depicting Chávez, Guevara, Lenin, and several other revolutionaries dining with Jesus Christ, as well as graffiti linking the struggle in Venezuela with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. “We’re a Marxist-Leninist organization, and we believe in a socialist transition that culminates in Communism,” said Pausto Castillo, 29, a member of the collective.

Castillo said Alexis Vive does not have formal relations with the Chávez government, but the government knows it can count on them in a crisis. ‘We’re like Hezbollah,” he said, referring to the Lebanese militia that fought a war with Israel in 2006. “When Lebanon has a problem with Israel, the government will use them. Chávez has gotten closer to revolutionary organizations like ours that support the revolution. There is no persecution, no repression.” Castillo said that elections are only one stage of the revolutionary process. “If Chávez lost in an election, we would consider the electoral process exhausted. There would be an armed struggle.”

Already, Castillo said, some 50 members of Alexis Vive have joined the reserve. The collective also conducts its own military training. Lor now, this is theoretical, as the group claims its members are not armed. “We talk about a war of the people,” Castillo said. “We’re not going to wait for a war to talk about how to conduct an ambush.”

There is cynicism, however, as well as militancy among Venezuela’s poor. Some suspect that behind their rhetoric about equality and justice, the new socialist political class in Venezuela isn’t much different than the traditional oligarchs who long grew fat off of the country’s oil wealth. Corruption, always a problem in Venezuela, persists. The unofficial status symbol of choice for powerful chávistas is a Hummer, the behemoth American SUV made famous by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The image problem this creates recently prompted an angry outburst from Chávez on national television. “What kind of revolution is this?” he asked. “The Whisky Revolution? The Hummer Revolution? No, this is a real revolution.”

Maclean’s visited La Bastille nightclub and restaurant, a popular gathering place for highrolling chávistas in the glitzy Las Mercedes district of Caracas. Inside, the patrons included middle-aged men, and women with unnaturally buoyant breasts, who sat around an oval bar supporting several bottles of Buchanan’s

Scotch whisky or swayed on the small dance floor in front of an energetic live band. “It’s not the whores and the Scotch that I object to,” one man, an anti-chávista oil investment consultant, said. “It’s the fact that they continue drinking their 18-year-old Scotch while they’re eating dinner. They have no class.” In other words, he fears the rabble have stormed the Bastille.

Stories about the conspicuous consumption of alleged revolutionaries also frustrate true believers such as Francisca Léon, a resident of the La Vega barrio in Caracas. Those people are not “roja, rojita,” she said, using a phrase that means “red, very red.” She likened them to a fruit that is red on the outside and white inside.

Léon, on the other hand, says she is red to the core.

“We’ve been revolutionaries since before Chávez.”

Not all Chávez politicians are Hummer-driving Scotch guzzlers, however. During a visit to La Vega, one man,

William Mantilla, wearing jeans and a denim jacket, sat at a table with a Maclean’s reporter and other residents of the barrio for half an hour and said nothing before mentioning that he is an elected member of the National Assembly. He lives in the barrio and doesn’t own a car. It is difficult to imagine many Canadian members of Parliament with a similar degree of humility.

WHETHER MEMBERS of Venezuela’s new political class stick to their roots in hillside slums or drive fancy SUVs might make a stark impression on residents of the country, but ultimately that matters less than how Hugo Chávez is transforming the country.

It is undeniable that he has helped many poor Venezuelans. He has brought them benefits such as greater access to health care and education. More importantly, Chávez has given the poor an unprecedented sense of political empowerment. Even his most ardent critics admit that Venezuela’s traditional politicians, as well as the middle and wealthy classes that supported them, are partly to blame for his popularity after neglecting their impoverished fellow citizens for decades.

But Hugo Chávez is also an autocrat trending toward something worse. He is centralizing power, consolidating his authority, stifling dissent, militarizing Venezuelan society, politicizing the military, and steadily entrenching his brand of Bolivarian socialism as the

only acceptable political discourse in Venezuela. He has proposed constitutional changes that will allow him to seek re-election indefinitely, and has predicted he will be in power for the next 20 years.

The fact that Venezuela sits on vast reserves of oil, as well as large quantities of coal, iron

He praised Ahmadinejad for ‘wisdom and strength,’ and described Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, as a 'model state’

ore and gold, means that the country under Chávez should not be dismissed as a mainland Cuba: distasteful but largely irrelevant. Chávez wants to use Venezuela’s oil wealth to purchase influence across Latin America. Globally, his efforts to build a power bloc to oppose American hegemony consist of seeking alliances with tyrants and dictators. He praised Iranian President Mahmoud

Ahmadinejad for his “wisdom and strength,” and promised that Venezuela will stand with him and Iran forever. During a visit to Minsk, Belarus, Chávez described the last dictatorship in Europe as “a model state, like the one we are beginning to create.”

And yet Chávez remains immensely popular among many left-leaning liberals in the West, including the NDP’s youth wing, which has posted at least one laudatory article on its website and endorses the international lobby group Hands Off Venezuela.

This support is exasperating for Tal Cual’s Petkoff, a man with as much right to call himself a revolutionary as anyone in Venezuela. Barrel-chested, robust and blustery, the 75year-old newspaper editor was a leftist guerrilla fighter in his youth. Captured and imprisoned in 1963, he convinced his guards that he was seriously ill with an ulcer after he swallowed and spit up capsules of fresh calf’s blood that a supporter had secretly given him. Petkoff was transferred to a military hospital and escaped out of a seventh-floor window on a length of nylon rope.

Petkoff says Chávez’s foreign supporters have lost sight of what socialists should really stand for—and it’s not his Bolivarian Revolution. “If we are to use labels appropriately, this is a fascist government. Everybody thinks this is a leftist government. And if we accept that Stalin was a leftist, okay, this is a leftist government. But it has many features of fascism,” he said.

“We are crawling toward a totalitarian society—the state’s domination of sport, of culture, using the educational system to ideologize primary and high-school students, the elimination of universities’ autonomy, communications hegemony, and the transformation of the armed forces into an armed party. It has nothing to do with democratic socialism.” M