VENEZUELA: A visit to the colonel

January 19, 2005

Russian academic Boris Kagarlitsky recently attended a conference in Caracas organised by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The following is excerpted from his account of the trip.

In Venezuela, a revolution is taking place. In 1992 Colonel Hugo Chavez tried unsuccessfully to stage a coup; he was thrown in jail, and became a popular hero. Winning election as president in 1998, he began a struggle against poverty. As luck would have it, the coming to power of the new regime coincided with a rise in world oil prices. The president decided to restore order in the state oil company PDVSA, the revenues from which had earlier been shamelessly plundered.

Before long, in 2002, there was an attempted coup, but it failed after encountering massive resistance. Then the management of the company shut down production. In the end Chavez won; the old managerial team was sent packing, a reorganisation was carried out, and the result was that, from somewhere, an extra US$4 billion promptly appeared in the budget. The company's offices were handed over to one of Venezuela's universities.

Little by little, the state apparatus is being transformed, but the results are not turning out exactly as expected. Corruption has been curtailed, but efficiency has not improved.

Chavez appeared frequently before us, making speeches each of which averaged about two hours. Chavez's speeches are relatively simple. They are not like those of Fidel Castro, a professional orator with aristocratic features and a lawyer's training, nor like those of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, accustomed to addressing trade union meetings and workers' demonstrations. Chavez is a talkative colonel, of the kind found in our army too. He is not especially well versed in the art of rhetoric. He talks with those around him, reflects on life, and has trouble stopping. People like it.

The colonel is already making for the exit when a woman starts calling out, "Chavez, I've wanted for a long time to shake your hand!" The president turns around and goes to shake her hand, but on the way notices an acquaintance and stops to chat with him. "How are things with your wife? And your daughter?" The crowd of supporters continues pressing forward. The leader of the republic is gradually wearying of the endless handshakes, but is trying not to show it. Finally, urged on by his bodyguards, he makes it to the door. The hall is blocked for several minutes.

To judge by everything, speeches to the public, handshaking, and conversations with workers about life take up a good deal of the president's time. There is just one small mystery — when does he get to do any work?

At the grassroots

Critically thinking intellectuals are never satisfied with revolutionary speeches. The conference delegates were divided into several groups and sent to various parts of the republic. I was dispatched to a particularly remote region — the state of Lara.

First we were taken to a tumble-down shed with a slate roof. On entering, we found two magnificently equipped dentist's chairs and two Cuban dentists who day and night were fixing the jaws of Venezuelans. An important achievement of the revolution is free dental care. There is no doubt that the system works; all over Caracas I saw young women with dental braces of the sort which in Europe are usually fitted to 12-year-olds. The masses have felt the changes — everyone has started getting their teeth fixed.

Our welcoming hosts in the state of Lara were eager to show off their achievements. We were taken to a village general store, a municipal shop where working people could buy everything they needed at fixed prices. The goods were supplied by state companies and local cooperatives. All sorts of basic items were on sale — milk, bread, flour, baby food, and for some reason, 10 varieties of ketchup.

Our next stop was by some shacks, where a dining room for poor people had been set up. People would prepare food at home — the state would provide them with foodstuffs — and they had to feed themselves and help feed their neighbours. On the wall were the rules of the dining room, along with a placard bearing a portrait of Chavez. Next to these was Che Guevara. Next again, a little smaller, was Batman.

A friendly local official explained how everything was set up. "The food only looks unappetising", he said. "In fact, it's very nutritious." An old man was carrying a pan full of food out of the building. In the rules on the wall it was written clearly that taking food out was forbidden. Noting my surprised glance, the official immediately explained, "This is an exception — he has a sick wife. But we always send someone to make sure it's her he's feeding."

Eventually we arrived at the governor's palace, a beautiful old mansion surrounded on all sides by ugly concrete boxes. The governor himself was a serving military pilot, an African-Venezuelan. He told us clearly and specifically what was succeeding and where there were difficulties. He was one of the people who might be called the workhorses of the revolution.

Gathered in the main hall were 30 or so people who were taking part in programs connected with the struggle against illiteracy. One after another they came before us and gave accounts of the work that had been done. In the state of Lara, illiteracy had been wiped out. The Puerto Ricans demanded to be shown, as they had been promised, a formerly illiterate person who had been taught to read.

Unfortunately, the organisers of the event had forgotten to bring such a person along. There was, however, a bearded man present who had undergone retraining in an institution something like the workers faculties in the USSR of the 1920s. He related how he had dreamed all his life of becoming a teacher, but had not had the chance to get an education. Now he had been given all the requisite knowledge, and could himself teach others. Inspired with enthusiasm, the people in the hall began shouting slogans, "Hugo Chavez will not go!" And so, we returned to Caracas.

In the lobby of the hotel I encountered an US man who had been taken to another state. We exchanged impressions. "No", he said thoughtfully, "that was obviously not a Potemkin village. Everything was too run-down..."


The opposition in Venezuela complains constantly about one stricture or another, but compared to what we see in Russia, this is a model democracy. An effort is made not to appoint opponents of the president to government service. I rack my brains, trying to recall if I have ever encountered an open opponent of President Vladimir Putin among today's Russian state functionaries.

Putin spent his first four years in office trying to drive two independent television channels off the airwaves. As well as two state channels, Venezuela has three private ones that are openly pro-opposition. In the hotel during the evening, I turn on the television set. First, a state channel. Tedious, poorly produced propaganda, together with provincial news — it's impossible to watch. I switch over to an opposition channel. Uninterrupted abuse directed at Chavez, and biased news programs. It's impossible to watch.

Venezuelans have long since stopped paying attention to the television. Not long ago a new press law was adopted, a law which the opposition regards as infringing press freedom. I have it before me. Compared to what applies in Russia, everything is exceedingly liberal. True, explicit calls for armed revolt are forbidden. The ludicrous thing here is that such appeals have been made periodically on the opposition channels. Everyone is used to them, and no-one takes much notice. The soap operas are more interesting.

In the post-Soviet republics, provision is made for the holding of referendums, and Chavez has had his referendum too. But unlike its counterparts in the former USSR, the Venezuelan referendum was not about extending the president's term in office, but about ending his term ahead of schedule. This is among the provisions of the new constitution which Chavez introduced: any elected figure may be subjected to this procedure once half of his or her term has passed.

The opposition had trouble collecting signatures, and some of the signatures they had were considered doubtful. The initiative group was given additional time to correct mistakes and submit new lists.

In Latin America, the rigging of elections is just as commonplace as in our part of Europe. Consequently, the opposition can always find a pretext for taking to the streets (the Ukrainian and Georgian events are examples of a typical Third World situation). The task of the authorities in Caracas was to stop events from developing in this fashion. Instead of preparing water cannon and grooming experts who would demonstrate that malpractice had not occurred, the authorities in Venezuela chose a somewhat unorthodox route: to count the votes honestly.

The voting system involved double counting, and included an international audit with the participation of US experts. Considering the extremely hostile relationship between Chavez and the US administration, it would be hard to imagine more exacting monitors. Venezuelans first recorded their vote on an electronic machine resembling the automatic teller machines in a bank. Then the machine issued a receipt, which would be deposited in a ballot box. The receipts and the electronic votes were counted separately, and the results compared. Almost half of the positions on the electoral commission were assigned to opponents of the president. Some voting districts and regions were chosen by lot for the auditors to conduct a recount. But however the count was made, there was only one outcome: Chavez had won.

On my return to Moscow, I feel a strong urge to wheeze and cough. All the same faces are back on the television. Parliamentary deputies from the United Russia bloc explain how much better education and health care will become when everything is finally privatised and commercialised. Tomorrow I am to visit the dentist. I had better get the money ready.

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.
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