To the dismay of opposition groups in Venezuela, and to the surprise of international observers gathering in Caracas, President Hugo Chávez is about to secure a stunning victory on August 15, in a referendum designed to lead to his overthrow.
First elected in 1998 as a barely known colonel, armed with little more than revolutionary rhetoric and a moderate social-democratic programme, Chávez has become the leader of the emerging opposition in Latin America to the neo-liberal hegemony of the United States. Closely allied to Fidel Castro, he rivals the Cuban leader in his fierce denunciations of George Bush, a strategy that goes down well with the great majority of the population of Latin America, where only the elites welcome the economic and political recipes devised in Washington.
While Chávez has retained his popularity after nearly six years as president, support for overtly pro-US leaders in Latin America, such as Vicente Fox in Mexico and Alejandro Toledo in Peru, has dwindled to nothing. Even the fence-sitting President Lula in Brazil is struggling in the polls. The news that Chávez will win this month’s referendum will be bleakly received in Washington.
Chávez came to power after the traditional political system in Venezuela had self-destructed during the 1990s. But the remnants of the ancien régime, notably those entrenched in the media, have kept up a steady fight against him, in a country where racist antipathies inherited from the colonial era are never far from the surface. Chávez, with his black and Indian features and an accent that betrays his provincial origins, goes down well in the shanty towns, but is loathed by those in the rich white suburbs who fear he has mobilised the impoverished majority against them.
The expected Chávez victory will be the opposition’s third defeat in as many years. The first two were dramatically counter-productive for his opponents, since they only served to entrench him in power. An attempted coup d’état in April 2002, with fascist overtones reminiscent of the Pinochet era in Chile, was defeated by an alliance of loyal officers and civilian groups who mobilised spontaneously and successfully to demand the return of their president.
The unexpected restoration of Chávez not only alerted the world to an unusual leftwing, not to say revolutionary, experiment taking place in Venezuela, but it also led the country’s poor majority to understand that they had a government and a president worth defending. Chávez was able to dismiss senior officers opposed to his project of involving the armed forces in programmes to help the poor, and removed the threat of a further coup.
The second attempt at his overthrow – the prolonged work stoppage in December 2002 which extended to a lockout at the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, nationalised since 1975 – also played into the hands of the president. When the walkout (with its echoes of the CIA-backed Chilean lorry owners’ strike against Salvador Allende’s government in the early 1970s) failed, Chávez was able to sack the most pampered sections of a privileged workforce. The company’s huge surplus oil revenues were redirected into imaginative new social programmes. Innumerable projects, or “missions”, were established throughout the country, recalling the atmosphere of the early years of the Cuban revolution. They combat illiteracy, provide further education for school dropouts, promote employment, supply cheap food, and extend a free medical service in the poor areas of the cities and the countryside, with the help of 10,000 Cuban doctors. Redundant oil company buildings have been commandeered to serve as the headquarters of a new university for the poor, and oil money has been diverted to set up Vive, an innovative cultural television channel that is already breaking the traditional US mould of the Latin American media.
The opposition dismiss the new projects as “populist”, a term customarily used with pejorative intent by social scientists in Latin America. Yet faced with the tragedy of extreme poverty and neglect in a country with oil revenues to rival those of Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to see why a democratically elected government should not embark on crash programmes to help the most disadvantaged.
Their impact is about to be tested at the polls on August 15. Vote “Yes” to eject Chávez from the presidency. Vote “No” to keep him there until the next presidential election in 2006. The opposition, divided politically and with no charismatic figure to rival Chávez to front their campaign, continue to behave as though their victory is certain. They discuss plans for a post-Chávez government, and watch closely the ever-dubious and endlessly conflicting opinion polls, placing their evaporating hopes on the “don’t knows”. They still imagine fondly that they can achieve a victory comparable to that of the anti-Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990.
Yet their third attempt to derail the government is clearly doomed. The Chávez campaign to secure a “No” vote has struck the country like a whirlwind, playing to all his strengths as a military strategist and a political organiser. A voter registration drive, reminiscent of the attempt to put black people on the election roll in the United States in the 1960s, has produced hundreds of thousands of new voters. So too has a campaign to give citizenship to thousands of long-term immigrants. Most will favour Chávez, and Chávez supporters are already patrolling the shanty towns and the most remote areas of the country to get the vote out on August 15. One unexpected bonus for Chávez has been the dramatic and perhaps semi-permanent increase in the world oil price. As he explained to me a few days ago, he is now able to direct the extra revenues to the poor, both at home and abroad, for Venezuela supplies oil at a discount price to the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, including Cuba. Chávez celebrated his 50th birthday last month, and he has talked of soldiering on as president for years in order to see through the reforms he envisages. That is not such an improbable proposition.
He has also been helped by the changing political climate in Latin America. Other presidents have been climbing over themselves to be photographed with him. He has patched up relations with Colombia and Chile, hitherto cool, and last month reinforced his friendly relations with Brazil and Argentina by signing an association agreement with the Mercosur trading union that they lead. Once perceived by his neighbours as a bit of an oddball, he now appears more like a Latin American statesman. Up and down the continent he has become the man to watch.
Faced with a Chávez victory, the opposition may yet turn in desperation to violence. His assassination, hinted at recently by former president Carlos Andrés Pérez, or the deployment of paramilitary forces of the kind unleashed in recent years in Colombia, is always a possibility. Yet the more civilised sectors of the opposition will set themselves, with luck, to the difficult task of organising a proper electoral force to challenge Chévez in 2006. When I asked an uncommitted bookseller whether he would vote to sack the president in mid-term, he replied: “No, they should let him get on with the job.”
RICHARD GOTT is the author of In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, published by Verso; his latest book, Cuba: A New History, will be published next month by Yale University Press