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Chavez’s New Brand of Populism

by GEMMA ARANETA

Manila, Philippines.
To denigrate him, the enemies of Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, call him a populist … as if that were the greatest insult in the glossary of political science.

Frankly, there is nothing inherently diabolic about populism, if you ask me.

But, since a handful of false democrats and tin pan dictators have misused the concept, it now connotes a devious setting out to curry favor among the masses, inevitably resulting in bad governance.

In its true sense, populism is not the road to perdition; in fact, it can fill that yawning abyss between promises and performance, that is why it is so politically alluring. Obviously, it requires oodles of money, government funds equitably disbursed and distributed; so if a leader is secretly avaricious, downright spineless and standing on gelatinous economic ground, s/he had better not even mention the P word.

The redoubtable Hugo Chavez is a populist of the good kind and fortunately, he can very well afford to be one. For the first time, the Venezuelan government has full control of its oil industry, the 5th largest in the world.

Fourteen percent of Venezuela’s oil production goes to the USA because the colossus of the North, despite G. W. Bush’s virulent anti-Chavez machinations, imports some 1.5 million barrels a day. Business is business, but Venezuela has also committed to supply Cuba, a number of Caribbean and Central American governments with oil at more friendly terms.

* * *

With world prices of crude heading towards US$50 a barrel by winter time, President Hugo Chavez can expect to have even more resources to fund and nurture his brand of populism.

As basic as they are massive, his social programs comprise of literacy missions, primary and secondary education for the deprived, employment opportunities, affordable food, medicines and health care for the destitute, and social security for “un-waged” women who head 65% of Venezuela’s households.

Over 250,000 drop-outs now have access to secondary education and unused buildings of Petroleos de Venezuela have been converted into schools. A cultural TV station — Vive — was set up as a shield against North American cultural invasion.

There are 11,000 more neighborhood clinics in shanty towns around urban centers. Long-term immigrants from neighboring countries have been granted citizenship, a measure denounced by the opposition as vote-generating. Relentless, President Chavez describes his government’s agenda as “people empowerment;” the grassroots are the protagonists in Venezuela, the “pueblo protagonico.”

Evidently, it is President Chavez’ channeling of oil revenues to social use that has helped him survive three grave threats to his life and government. In April 2002, there was a coup d’etat, reminiscent of the Pinochet/CIA offensive that overthrew (and killed) Chile’s President Salvador Allende in 1973. Significantly, an alliance of loyal military officers and civilian groups (Circulos Bolivarianos) restored Hugo Chavez to power in less than two days.

At year end, there was a labor lock-out in Venezuela’s oil industry, obviously aimed at undermining Chavez’s vital social programs. Its impact could have been worse than the general transport strike that bedeviled the Allende government. It can be argued that international events affecting the world’s oil supply were not favorable to the economic saboteurs and political de-stabilizers.

* * *

Then came the August referendum with the crucial question, answerable by either a YES or NO: “Should the mandate of the Chavez administration be revoked?”

Out of 14 million registered voters, 8.6 million cast their votes … a bigger turnout than the 7.5 million in 1998 when Hugo Chavez was elected President. He said: “I am pleased to be the first President to submit himself to the people’s judgment halfway through his term and to be ratified in office.”

I guess the 59% who reaffirmed his mandate believe that populist Hugo Chavez is a president worth defending.

GEMMA ARANETA writes for the Manila Bulletin.

 

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