Boston Globe, August 1, 2000
The electoral victory of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday, greeted with celebration by the country's poor majority, may have implications beyond Venezuela's borders.
Chavez' "revolution from above" is in many ways a logical response to the last 20 years of Latin American attempts at social change. In countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, activists organized grassroots movements of peasants, laborers, and religious "base communities." They were slaughtered mercilessly by death squads and allied militaries that had nearly unlimited support from Washington.
So it is not surprising that Chavez would begin with an effort to consolidate power. But his popularity among the citizenry runs deep.
This can be seen by their continued loyalty in the face of adversity. The Venezuelan economy shrank by 7.2% last year-- a severe contraction by any standard-- yet the voters have stood by him in a referendum, a Constituent Assembly, the ratification of a new Constitution, and now the approval of a new six-year term. For comparison, just look what happened to George Bush, Sr. when he had the misfortune to run for re-election on the heels of a relatively mild recession here, or Jimmy Carter in the recession of 1980.
So why are so many Venezuelans so willing to give Chavez a fresh mandate to cure the country's ills? Probably because they believe that he is honest and trying to do what is best for them. He has cleaned up corruption in the judiciary and tackled prison reform, and created new constitutional rights for the country's indigenous people. He has begun to mobilize the armed forces to help with the provision of social services. His overall economic program is less clear, but at least he is talking about alternatives to the policies that have caused a steady decline in per capita income over the last two decades.
For now, Chavez reminds us, the Venezuelan revolution has been carried out "without a single drop of blood." Recently an Army captain formed a "patriotic junta" dedicated to removing the President, and admitted to Newsweek that his group had discussed killing the president as an option. In the United States this would carry a serious, possibly lifelong prison term-- but Captain Garcia Morales was merely dismissed.
Such efforts to avoid violent confrontation and repression have won Chavez no friends in the US foreign policy establishment. They seem to have more sympathy with the government of Colombia, where peasants, labor leaders, and even human rights workers are routinely murdered with impunity.
In some ways we are witnessing a replay of Central America in the 1980s, with Colombia as El Salvador, and America pouring in billions of dollars to escalate a war against an insurgency it can never defeat. Venezuela is playing the role of Nicaragua-- a popular, left-of-center, nationalist government struggling to survive and fulfill its promises to the poor.
The dominoes are bigger this time around, and Washington knows it. Its "savage neoliberalism," --as Chavez describes trickle-down economics-- has failed not only the poor, but also the average household in Latin America for two decades now. Since 1980, income per person has hardly grown at all in the entire continent.
In most countries, political change has been held in check by despair and cynicism. So if the Chavez government can provide hope with an alternative that improves people's lives, there's no telling what might happen.
The United States has a long and sordid history of destabilizing democratically elected governments that it doesn't like in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Clinton Administration has been relatively quiet about Chavez so far, apparently hoping that capital flight and internal opposition from the wealthy and a hostile news media will suffice to bring an end to his experiment. And indeed, over the last year, investors have taken an amount equal to about nine percent of the country's income out of the country.
Nonetheless we may soon see more pro-active strategies from Washington to undermine Venezuela's new deal. In the 1980s, our government spent billions to ruin Nicaragua's economy, through war and embargo. It never recovered: ten years after the ouster of the Sandinistas, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere.
The Venezuelans have six times as many people and the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, so they have at least a fighting chance. Perhaps it is time for the millions of Americans who tried to stop our government from destroying Nicaragua to begin thinking about how to make sure that history does not repeat itself.