Venezuela: revolutionaries and a country on the edge

Venezuelans were hardly surprised by an American preacher's call to kill their President. After all, the US funded a coup attempt against him
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The Independent US

Since the Venezuelans elected Hugo Chavez, their own left-wing democrat, in a 1998 landslide, they have been waiting for their 11 September. That's why it did not surprise anyone here this week when Pat Robertson - one of America's leading evangelicals and a friend of George Bush - openly called for a US-backed murder of their President.

In the four corners of the Plaza Bolivar - Caracas's Trafalgar Square - there are groups of citizens who work in shifts, waiting, permanently waiting, to mobilise for when an attack on Chavez happens. They are known as the "hot corners", and everybody in the city knows to head there if there is an attack on Venezuela's elected leader.

Laydez Primera, 34, has been doing an eight-hour shift. He explains: " Los esqualidos [the squalid ones, as the opposition is often called] and Bush have tried everything to get rid of Chavez. They know we have elected him in totally open elections, but they don't care. They have tried forcing a recall referendum in the middle of Chavez's term, but the President won by 60 per cent. They have tried saying the elections were rigged, but the opposition asked Jimmy Carter to come and watch the elections, and he said they were totally free. He didn't say that about the election of Bush in Florida! And they even tried staging a coup. We will never, never forget that."

The coup, the coup. Everybody here has their stories about the 2002 coup d'état, and the strange 47-hour Presidency of Pedro Carmona Estanga, the head of Venezuela's equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry. (Pat Robertson's call caused a cascade of memories to burst across the streets of Caracas.) That April, Chavez was kidnapped and removed from power in a decapitation of democracy orchestrated by the media, a few generals and the wealthy. Carmona dissolved the Supreme Court, the Constitution and the elected National Assembly and assumed control of the country. This was immediately welcomed by the Bush administration.

Washington was eager to ensure the largest pot of oil outside the Middle East - providing 10 per cent of US domestic imports - was placed back under the control of US corporations, rather than a left-winger with his own ideas about oil revenue. It later emerged the US had been funding the coup leaders. Only the story didn't end there. Venezuela refused to be Chile. Judith Patino, a 57-year-old grandmother and street-seller who lives in one of the shanty-towns in the west of Caracas, explains: "We would not let our democracy be destroyed. We refused. Everybody from this barrio [district], everybody from all the barrios, went on to the streets of Caracas. We were afraid, we thought there would be massacres, but we had chosen our President and we were governing our own country and we would not surrender."

More than a million people took to the streets, surrounding the Miraflores Palace - the President's residence - and calling for Chavez to return. Los Esqualidos scurried away; Chavez returned to the Miraflores by helicopter, and Caracas erupted into what one young woman told me was "the biggest, maddest party Venezuela has ever seen". Yet, three years on, the country is still split. There is the rich 20 per cent, who for more than a century received all the oil profits - until Chavez came to power and began to distribute them more widely. They welcomed the coup and rejoiced at Robertson's comments. And, glaring at them across a chasm of incomprehension, there is the poor 80 per cent, who defended Chavez.

A taxi ride across Caracas shows how small the physical divide is between these Two Venezuelas, the conflicting mental universes that share a country. Santa Fe, in the east of the city, could be a slice of Beverley Hills. Palatial, gated communities stretch along the hillsides, interrupted only by private golf courses and turrets for security guards. I am surprised to spot one of the battered, chugging public buses, which always seem to be held together by Sellotape and goodwill. "For their servants," the taxi driver explains. The bus carries them 15 minutes away to the barrio shanty-towns that could be a slice of Africa.

Many are squatter barrios, thrown together in the rush migration to the cities over the past 50 years. Houses made of tin and cardboard scar the hillsides, with life somehow flourishing in the crevices. Is this steel shack really a hairdresser's salon? Is that tottering mass of concrete really a clothes shop? It is easy to see why the people of the barrios support Chavez so passionately: I visited dozens of the "missions" built by Chavez that provide health and education for the poor, in some places for the first time. The Miracle Mission, for example, provides cataract operations, restoring the sight of poor people who have been blind for decades. They would have never seen again under the opposition's vision of slashed public spending and oil revenues directed once again to the rich. If democracy was destroyed, these missions - the lifelines for the barrios - would soon disappear.

It is harder to see why the opposition loathe Chavez with such snarling ferocity that they want a foreign power to intervene. Opposition spokespeople from Primera Justicia, one of the main anti-Chavez parties, offer me polite but vague formulations - soft sentences that do not seem to explain the intensity of their hatred. I decide instead to meet ordinary anti-Chavistas, so I head for Las Mercedes where Caracas's air-conditioned restaurants are. I soon find Mario and Ellie Novo Chavez (Armani suit, Donna Karan dress). I ask Mario if is related to the President. "Please! We are about to eat, don't make us vomit!" Ellie laughs. She explains that Chavez is "a fucking communist", a man who looks to "Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein" for inspiration. Mario is about to change his surname, because he thinks it is bad for his business as an IT technician to be associated even nominally with "that psycho" . He says: "There are really only two classes in this country - the educated, and the stupid. The poor are poor because they are incredibly ignorant. But Chavez tells them it is because we are taking the oil money. It's ridiculous! He is giving the poor money for nothing." Yet there is an irony here: while lambasting the poor as ignorant, it turns out the couple are entirely ignorant of life in their own country. They have never been to a barrio, and they say I am "insane" to visit one.

"They don't have roads in the barrios! You won't be able to get there," Mario says, bizarrely. "You will be kidnapped and killed!" Ellie adds. I remembered what one maid in Barquisimeto, in the south of the country, told me: "We know how they live because we are in their houses every day, cleaning their homes and raising their children. But the rich have no idea, no idea at all, how we live." But Ellie interrupts my thought, declaring: "Please - let's not talk about Chavez any more! He is in every conversation in Venezuela, and I am sick of it!"

How much of the division in Venezuela is based on race? Although there are exceptions, the wealthy elite tends to be white, and the skin tone gets darker the farther you go into the barrios. In the newspapers - which are all anti-Chavez - the depictions of the President in cartoons look like Ku Klux Klan propaganda, wildly exaggerating the thick curliness of his hair and the indigenous slant to his features. "Oh, there was no problem with racism before Chavez," Ellie tells me. "You know, it used to be a sign of affection to call somebody el negro. If you had a slow member of your family, that's what you would say. But now, since Chavez, people have begun to think it is racist!"

Across the opposition heartlands, people talk like this - and worse. The wealthy seem to have whipped themselves into a hysteria, convinced that their maids, their police and their president are going to turn on them and lynch them in their homes. The media carefully reinforces this impression, creating a fantasyland for the top 20 per cent to scream in. Yet if you ask them for facts - actual examples of persecution or dictatorial behaviour - they either offer demonstrably false urban myths, or declare: "It will happen soon!" It is true that the medical missions are staffed by Cuban doctors, who Chavez has exchanged with Castro in return for access to Venezuela's oil.

The opposition has seized on this as "evidence" that Chavez wants to make Venezuela into a Castroite dictatorship. But his supporters insist he is taking the good parts of the Cuban model - generous health and education services - while eschewing the pernicious parts, like the liquidation of free speech, elections and the freedom of the poor to make and sell goods.

But you would not know - from what the opposition says in every Venezuelan newspaper, or from the propaganda of Pat Robertson - that Venezuelan elections are open and fair, that Chavez has been approved in polls or referenda no less than seven times, and there is more substantial free speech than in Britain. In Venezuela, people can (and, every night, do) call on television for the President to be killed. Indeed, Chavez has been so reluctant to commit a crackdown that the leaders of the coup are still free and unpunished. Venezuelans are still nervously waiting for them to return, in the form of another coup - or a CIA bullet.

At 2am on one of Caracas's party-heavy mornings, I head again for Plaza Bolivar's hot corners, below the parrots that sit in the trees. I ask Zaid Cortez, 27, what will happen if Chavez is assassinated. "Venezuela will never go back to being governed by Los esqualidos. We won't go back to being a country where the petrol money is used for a minority and not for the barrios. So what will happen if Chavez is killed? Civil war. We are ready."

The country, and its oil

* Result of presidential election in 1998: 56.2 per cent for Chavez

* General strikes in 2002: four

* Result of 2004 referendum on whether Chavez should stay in power: 58.3 per cent vote in his favour

* Highest popularity rating: 80 per cent

* Lowest rating: 30 per cent

* Covert aid from the US to the Venezuelan opposition since Chavez came to power: $4m

* Population: 25.4 million

* Foreign debt: $33.3bn (£19bn)

* Unemployment: 17 per cent

* Amount spent by Chavez on social sector: $2bn

* Proportion of country's earnings from oil sector: 80 per cent

* Chavez on oil executives: They live in luxury chalets "where they perform orgies, drinking whisky"

* Proportion of US oil imports from Venezuela: 10 per cent

* Proportion of Venezuelans on poverty line: 47 per cent

* Total Venezuelan oil production: 2.6 million barrels per day

* Total Venezuelan oil exports: 2.1 million barrels per day

* Number of free barrels given to Fidel Castro: 90,000 per day

* Cuban professionals working in Venezuela: 25,000

* Its greatest hero: Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spain. He was born in Caracas in 1783

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