VENEZUELA'S charismatic and determined president, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, who turned forty-five on July 28th, is a man in a hurry with a mission conceived at least seven years ago.
He was elected president in December, 1998 at the head of the Polo Patriótico (Patriotic Centre), a coalition of four main parties. Sworn in for a five-year term in February, 1999, Chávez promised a "peaceful social and democratic revolution" to clean up forty years of corruption and mismanagement that has left oil-rich Venezuela in economic crisis. This is a tall order, one that only a Napoléon or a Bolívar might aspire to. Chávez is too smart and pragmatic to believe he is a reincarnation of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), called the Liberator, Vene-
zuela's greatest national hero. But he religiously invokes Bolívar's name and visionary achievements: the freeing of most of northern South America from Spanish imperialism and the compilation of theo-
retical and practical notions for statehood on the new continent.
Chávez hadn't said anything about Venezuela's claim to three quarters of Guyana until a fortnight ago, when Venezuela complained that Guyana was carrying out exploratory drilling in Venezuelan territorial waters off the delta of the Orinoco. There was a build-up of Venezuelan troops on the current border with Guyana, and a Venezuelan aircraft entered Guyana's air space without authority. Chávez has denounced the terms of the 1899 Paris treaty es-
tablishing the current boundaries and opted for a new bilateral initiative begun in 1966. He has promised not to use violence to settle the issue. A UN representative has been appointed to oversee the negotiations.
On Saturday, July 24, the 216th anniversary of Bolívar's birthday and the day before Venezuela's new Constitutional Assembly was elected, Chávez and some army officers removed the Liberator's sword from a bank vault and marched with it to the house near Plaza Bolívar, not far from the Congress, where the Liberator was born.
Chávez has devised what he calls the Bolívar 2000 Programme, aimed at alleviating the Venezuelan crisis, and he wouldn't mind if Venezuela were renamed the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela". He must see himself as another liberator, determined to free Venezuela from forty years of "democracy and stability," since the ouster in 1958 of Venezuela's last dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, now old and ill and living in exile in Madrid. Pérez Jim-
énez's departure was followed by the establishment of a provisional government which prepared Venezuela for the establishment of constitutional democratic government, with universal suffrage and elections by direct and secret ballot and proportional represen-
tation for minority groups. The main parties which took part in that election were Acción Democrática (Democratic Action), social democrats led by Rómulo Betancourt; Copei (Christian Socialist), led by Dr Rafael Caldera; and the Union Republicana Democrá-
tica (Republican Democratic Union), led by Dr Juvito Villalba. Also taking part was the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (Communist Party of Venezuela) and a representative of the Junta de Gobierno (Governing Junta).
The presidential candidates and political parties agreed to a pact called the Punto Fijo (Decided Purpose), the name of Dr Caldera's, the Social Democratic leader's, home. They agreed to respect the results of the election and to collaborate in running the country. Rómulo Betancourt, of Acción Democrática, was elected president of the new democratic Venezuela.
Elections under the Punto Fijo pact continued for forty years. Critics say its original high purpose eventually declined, becoming a pact between the two main political parties, Copei and Acción Democrá-
tica, to hold on to power, with alternating adminis-
trations. It is this manipulation of the political process and lack of real democratic choice that Chávez and his supporters (who make up about half of those who voted) say has led to corruption, mis-
management and clientships on a scale that has left oil-rich Venezuela in virtual bankruptcy, with eighty percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Transparency International, the world-wide, non- governmental, anti-corruption organisation, agrees. In a 1988 ranking of 85 countries, Transparency International found Venezuela was among the ten most corrupt. Oil money provides about half the income for Venezuela's annual budget. This once was used to provide social benefits for the poor, but so much money has been siphoned off by corruption that there is now little left for social programmes. This has helped make the traditional politicians unpopular, opening the way for Chávez, an outsider with no connection to the traditional parties, capable of cleaning up the mess, or so his supporters maintain.
THE PROBLEM ADDRESSED
TODAY there are 11 million registered voters in Venezuela in a population of 23 million. About half of these failed to vote in either the presidential election of December, 1998 that brought Hugo Chávez to power or in the election to select the now con-
troversial National Constitutional Assembly. They may or may not support Chávez, or the opposition, but their refusal to vote remains an enigma to political commentators. One theory is that these people have become disenchanted with all politicians and elections. It is part of Chávez's task to re-
inspire them, as it is of an urgently needed rein-
In the presidential campaign Chávez declared openly that he would reduce the number of government min-
istries and the size of the public service, meaning greater efficiency but more unemployment as well. Even so, Venezuelans feel they are seeing more action, with more government officials visiting towns and villages all over the country.
Journalist Carlos Barrera, writing in El Universal, Caracas's best and most popular newspaper, about the huge task Chávez faces, blames Venezuela's economic crisis not only on maladministration and corruption but also on "governments too cowardly to take hard decisions". The problem of leadership is profound, says Barrera. The spirit of patriotism, solidarity, integrity and social sensibility have unfortunately been replaced by egotism, hypocrisy and complicity. The creators and core of the new movement led by Chávez are thousands of people scattered throughout the country, "deeply disoriented and confused", who have found a way to channel their frustration and rage at traditional government authority, both corrupt and inept.
"They are the least guilty, most long-suffering, and represent a significant proportion of the Venezuelan population", says Barrera. "There must be a start now to addressing their causes, since it is the ruling elite, especially those in political and management roles who are responsible for the grave situation in which Venezuela finds itself today".
The last 20 years in particular have been a time of continuing impoverishment and socio-cultural re-
gression. Venezuela's political class has been unable to administer public funds with even a minimum of probity and efficiency. Brutal inflation and a debased currency have resulted from poor financial and revenue policies, aggravated by squandered income and corrupt patronage made worse by clumsy and ill-timed policy shifts. Barrera agrees that successive administrations of the two dominant parties, Acción Democrática and Copei, during the last 40 years have proved incompetent and lacking in a sense of mission and direction. "This has undermined Venezuela's quality of life, a country once practically without inflation, proud of its solid, stable currency, the bolívar, with a consolidated and expanding middle class, where 80 per cent of the population now faces impossible poverty". He maintains that the administration of President Rafael Caldera, brought to an end by the Chávez presidential victory, was responsible to an enormous degree for these problems.
The deterioration took place during the last five years of Caldera's term of office, leaving health care, education and personal security in crisis. Unemployment increased from 6 to 11 per cent. From 1987 to 1991 average annual inflation was 42 per cent. At the end of 1992 the exchange rate was 80 Venezuelan bolivares to US$1. Today inflation is rampant, with the exchange rate at 600 bolivares to US$1, and declining.
Nor does Barrera spare Venezuela's private sector, which he feels has been equally responsible for the dilapidation. "For real development, private invest-
ment must be constant, vigorous and sustainable. If just half of Venezuelan capital stocks sent abroad were reinvested in the country, the economic situa-
tion would be greatly enhanced". He notes that there have been valid excuses like "legal uncertainties", "exchange risks", and "political instability" for export of capital. This is evidence of reasonable self-defence rather than a ruthless export of capital indispensable for development, but "no nation prospers if its citizens don't believe in it". Venezuela's ruling class has been inhibited and fearful, demonstrating a lack of interest and leadership, as if the problem were someone else's.
Not as enthusiastic about President Chávez's interventions since he became president is Luis Moreno Ocampo, president of Transparency Inter-
national for Latin America and the Caribbean. Ocampo has warned that, "It is not enough to throw out old overlords just to bring in new ones. If the history of democracy has taught us anything at all, it is that an active, participatory society is more im-
portant than charismatic leadership".
Chávez supporters would argue that Chávez, with his "bolivarian charisma," recalling the original ideals of the Republic, is doing his best to inspire Vene-
zuela's people, giving them the self-confidence to take hold of their democratic institutions and work towards economic development. Critics say he just wants to be dictator. Ocampo suggests that, no matter who is elected president of Venezuela, the ideal direction is for political parties to rep-
resent competing opinions and interests, following the rules and working towards making the state more efficient and accountable in the use of public funds. "The major effort is up to Venezuelan cit-
izens, but the global community", he adds optimist-
ically, "including multinational corporations, multilateral organisations and non-governmental organisations like Transparency International, can provide critical assistance".
During the campaign for the Constitutional Assembly, Chávez appointed another body, the Presidential Constituent Council, to gather ideas from various sectors: the military, business, party people and human rights activists among them. He has criticised Venezuela's rich elite and promised to reconstruct Venezuela's political system to make it more demo-
cratic and accountable.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL ASSEMBLY
THE National Constitutional Assembly proposed by Chávez is the new president's most daring and imaginative initiative on which most of the reform he wants depends. Its life and role were carefully organised.
First, there was the referendum in April this year asking the people if they wanted a constitutional assembly to initiate reform by writing a new con-
stitution for Venezuela. After a majority voted in favour of establishment of the Constitutional Assembly, a National Electoral Council was appointed to supervise the election of the Assembly and the campaign that would lead up to it. It was a hectic campaign, fought in the Congress, on television and radio and in the newspapers. Caracas's streets were strung with banners proclaiming the virtues of this or that candidate, and posters were stuck on walls everywhere. There were street-corner meetings with candidates' speeches punctuated by sedate Venezuelan castillanos or joropos played by small string bands while couples danced on the sidewalks.
President Chávez was reprimanded and fined during the campaign by the National Electoral Council for too openly supporting candidates he wanted in the Constituent Assembly. The president shrugged this off. The fine was quickly paid by supporters, and Chávez continued to do as he pleased. No one could tell him what he must or must say, he declared, or interfere with his freedom of speech. The election of the Constituent Assembly took place on Sunday, July 25th, the day after the anniversary of Simón Bolívar's birth. Chávez supporters, known as chavistas, took 121 of the 128 seats to be filled.
The Congress went into voluntary recess and lent the congressional buildings to the Constitutional Assembly. All went well at first. The Constitutional Assembly is to complete the new constitution--which is to revise the roles of the president, congress, courts and local government for greater efficiency and accountability--within six months. Insiders say the first of many articles has not yet been ap-
proved. The opposition has added cynically that, at this rate, writing the new constitution will take at least a year. Perhaps the Assembly has been too busy with other matters--dealing with the Supreme Court and the Congress--which were not part of its orig-
inal mandate. The Constitutional Assembly says its work has been interfered with by the Court and the Congress and that it has had to respond.
The Supreme Court took the initiative to declare that the Assembly didn't have the authority to do some of the things it was doing, then changed its mind and gave its support. This led to the resig-
nation of the Court's president Cecilia Sosa, said to be a determined reformer herself, on Tuesday, August 24th. The Supreme Court, she declared, had "committed suicide" the day before when it changed its mind on its previous decision and declared that the Constitutional Assembly had acted lawfully when it gave itself powers to remove judges from office and overhaul the courts. Venezuela's courts are said to be as corrupt as its political institutions, and thus have been targeted by Chávez for immediate action. Sosa also criticised the Congress and op-
position political parties for caving in to the Constitutional Assembly. On Thursday, August 26th, the US State Department entered the debate, express-
ing concern that democracy in Venezuela might be threatened by constraints placed on the Congress by President Chávez's supporters.
Provoked perhaps by Sosa's statements and worried by the actions of the Constituent Assembly which on Wednesday, August 25th, ordered the Congress not to pass any laws and curtailed its powers and duties, opposition members of Congress decided that the Congress must reconvene to debate the issues. On Friday, August 27th, when they tried with their supporters to enter the buildings lent to the Constitutional Assembly, they were blocked by chavistas. This led to riots outside the Congress, with security forces trying to keep the warring parties apart. Chávez's peaceful revolution sud-
denly turned violent. The Assembly, presided over by Luis Miquelina, a Marxist philosopher now in his eighties who is one of Chávez close advisers, has declared itself for the time being the nation's supreme authority, curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court and Congress. This outraged the opposition, who declared that the Assembly had exceeded its powers. Chávez replied that only this kind of radical action will root out the widespread corruption and mismanagement that has brought Ven-
ezuela to its knees. The work of the Constituent Assembly has thus become highly politicised, with only very limited input from the opposition.
According to the overall plan for reform, when the Constituent Assembly completes the new constitution meant to restrict corruption and make administration more efficient, there is to be another referendum. Assuming the new constitution is approved, which seems likely, new presidential and congressional elections will be called after which the new Con-
gress and President will be installed to run Chávez's new Venezuela. If the new constitution is by some chance rejected in the referendum, it appears the old one will remain in effect. In this way Chávez has put his job and reputation on the line.
Chávez's critics, some for their own political purposes, some out of real concern, remembering the attempted coup he led in 1992, see him as harking back to the age of caudillos, intent simply on making himself a new dictator. On the other hand, they say paradoxically that he talks a lot but does nothing--manifestly untrue in the light of events.
On Thursday, August 26th, the US State Department expressed concern that democracy in Venezuela might be threatened by curbs put on Congress by Chávez supporters. State Department spokesman James B Foley said actions by the Constitutional Assembly would "affect the strong tradition of democracy in Ven-
ezuela". Venezuela is one of the world's largest oil producers, and most of its production goes to the United States.
Venezuela's population of 23 million, with 11 million voters, is at least 90 per cent Roman Catholic. 500 priests, 200 of them Jesuits, cater to the needs of the faithful, and the Church, led by the Archbishop of Caracas, Msgr Ignacio Antonio Velasco, wields power and influence in its own right. The warring political factions, pro- and anti-Chávez, agreed on August 27th at the end of a turbulent week to allow the Church to intervene and act as conciliator. By Saturday, August 29th, Pres-
ident Chávez was himself in a conciliatory mood, saying that the opposition had nothing to fear and that he had no intention of becoming dictator or undermining democracy, though Venezuela's problems did indeed have to be addressed with drastic action.
Meanwhile, the political action continued. On Sunday, August 29th, the Congress, with a small opposition majority, threatened not to approve two planned trips abroad by President Chávez, one to Panama one on Tuesday, the other to Brazil on Saturday, September 4th. The Congress also threat-
ened to withhold approval for budget payments for several items. Chávez responded by announcing that the Constituent Assembly would meet in emergency session to exercise the Congress's right to approve disbursal of funds. Opposition leaders said this would amount to a coup d'etat. Kenneth MacKay, special US envoy to the Americas, delivered the United States' second statement on Venezuela. "Our concern is mainly that the dramatic reform taking place should occur within a democratic framework", he said as August drew to a close. He added diplomatically that he wasn't sure whether the Constitutional Assembly was acting as a democratic institution.
One Venezuelan political commentator has maintained that Chávez is already the only power in Venezuela but has sense enough not to make himself an actual dictator. This commentator maintained that the Venezuelan population, in spite of the country's history, has a deep disdain for dictatorial rule.
CHÁVEZ THE MAN
HUGO Rafael Chávez Frías was born on July 28, 1954 into a simple family in the town of Sabaneta, in the south-western state of Barinas, where the plains roll away from the foothills of the Andes. His father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, was elected gov-
ernor of Barinas in November 1998 after his son entered politics.
When he came of age, Chávez entered Venezuela's Military Academy where he obtained a university-
level degree in Military Sciences and Arts, engin-
eering branch. It was at the Military Academy that his passion for the ideas of Simón Bolívar took shape. He graduated as a second lieutenant on July 5, 1975 after achieving the highest marks in courses he took as a member of the armed forces. He then did a graduate degree in political science at Simón Bolívar University, just outside Caracas, and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1990.
Posts he held in the armed forces brought him into contact with communities where he was able to ob-
serve social and political conditions at first-hand. He also cultivated an interest in the arts and has put his own hand to writing and painting. He is a baseball fan. His dark complexion, high cheek bones, and narrow eyes mark him out as a mestizo (mixed Amerindian and Caucasian), though more Indian than European. However, race is almost totally ignored in Venezuela. Most people are mestizo to varying de-
grees, with a relatively small African influence. The great majority of Venezuelans look more or less like Chávez.
On February 4, 1992, Chávez, not yet 38, led a midnight coup against the corrupt administration of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Thousands of rebel troops attacked Caracas and three other cities. The presidential palace, Miraflores, was assaulted with rifle-fire and mortars. Witnesses have said that a rebel soldier had a clear shot at President Pérez, who was making his escape in an underground walkway, but lost his nerve at the last moment. Fifteen sol-
diers and many civilians were killed before Chávez and his men were overcome by loyal troops and sur-
rendered. Chávez spent two years in prison then was released.
The failed coup was not entirely ineffective. Nor were anti-corruption seminars for judges and pros-
ecutors organised by Transparency International in the same year as the coup . President Pérez was sub-
sequently indicted by public prosecutors, removed from office, and convicted of misuse of public funds. He was still under house arrest when he was elected to the Senate in 1998, thus gaining im-
munity. Venezuelan presidents don't just roll over and die, and this will no doubt be as true of Chávez as any other.
Pérez's successor, the veteran Rafael Caldera, was never accused of being personally dishonest, ac-
cording to Transparency International, but he was unable to free Venezuela from the corrupt practices of the traditional political parties and their clients.
If Chávez's reforms work, Venezuela should be on the way to the peace and prosperity it deserves, finding a new place in the world community. With an area of 916,000 sq km, Venezuela is the size of England and France put together, with only 20 per cent of their population. Venezuela's Gross Domestic Product in 1994 was US$53 billion. Principal exports are pet-
roleum and petroleum products, as well as aluminium and steel. Agriculture and food processing are also important, as are the production of textiles and clothing, machinery and transport equipment. Tourism is also a major industry, especially in the Carib-
bean resorts of Venezuela's north coast. Half of Venezuela's exports go to the United States, most of the rest to Germany, Brazil, Japan and Cuba.
If Chávez makes his dream a reality Venezuela could in time become a significant player in Latin Amer-
ican and world trade and politics.
(Anthony Milne <email@example.com was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about ev-
erything else under the sun.)