Bandit country

In the Shadow of the Liberator: the impact of Hugo Chavez on Venezuela and Latin America

Richard G

Something is stirring again in Latin America. Ecuador has been shaken by an indigenous insurgency; the landless movement is making headway in Brazil; the Colombian government says it is trying to make peace with the guerrillas; Alberto Fujimori in Peru has his back to the wall after a contested election; and, in the Elian affair, Cuba worsted the Miami "Banana Republic", loosening its grip on US policy toward the island. But it is developments in Venezuela and Mexico that are most pregnant with significance.

For more than four decades, while most of the rest of Latin America succumbed to military rule, Venezuela practised its own vigorous, if corrupt, form of democracy. Because it had oil wealth as well as constitutional government, it was widely hoped that Venezuela would blaze a trail that the rest of Spanish America could follow. And while the International Monetary Fund's stabilisation plans created stagnation and misery in so many of the other republics in the 1980s, it was believed that Venezuela's respected political leaders, great natural resources and huge potential would prove the IMF's success story. In fact, as Richard Gott shows, the debacle of the ruling order in Venezuela has been on a grander scale than anywhere else, with popular anger stoked by the awareness that the country's natural wealth should have been its salvation, not its curse.

The first dramatic sign that something was wrong came in 1989, when the inhabitants of the shanty towns around the capital, Caracas, rose in fury at price increases and wreaked havoc as they plundered the shopping malls that had sprung up to cater for the sizeable middle class. Then, in February 1992, a young officer named Hugo Chavez took over the presidential palace in the name of the Bolivarian movement and, for a few hours, appeared to hold the fate of the country in his hand. I happened to be in the country at the time, and I was amazed by the excitement and support that Chavez elicited from the mass of Venezuelans. An emergency session of the national assembly resounded to opposition deputies denouncing successive governments for lining their own pockets while allowing social problems to multiply. The then president, Carlos Andres Perez, succeeded in rallying the top command behind him and regained control of the situation.

Chavez made a dignified televised statement, urging his followers to lay down their arms and to accept that, "for now", the Bolivarian movement could not prevail. Chavez went to jail, but he had become a popular hero. From prison, he knitted together an alliance of political groups. Released in 1997, he contested the 1998 presidential election and won with a landslide majority. The collapse of the established political parties, whether of the right or the social democratic left, could not have been more complete. Parties that used to have hundreds of thousands of supporters and that sent distinguished-looking gentlemen to attend photo opportunities in the rose garden at the White House, or to select gatherings at St Antony's College, Oxford, were routed by Chavez and his ragtag army of trade unionists, former guerrillas and social reformers. The key to their victory lay in a promise to reject the failed prescriptions of the IMF, and to ensure that national wealth was used to better the condition of the majority.

This extraordinary sequence of events is related with great brio by Gott, who has been visiting Venezuela since the 1960s. It helps enormously that he has personal knowledge of the political antecedents of many of the principal actors in the drama. One of Chavez's most vocal liberal opponents has been Teodoro Petkoff, whose activities as a left-wing guerrilla Gott chronicled in the 1970s. Indeed, with virtually the entire political establishment discredited, it is the former outsiders who today have the initiative, whether on the left or the right.

The new oil minister, Ali RodrIguez (inevitably, yet another former guerrilla), has asserted Venezuelan leadership of the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (Opec) with tactics that have nearly doubled the price of oil. He has also set up a social fund into which oil revenue above $10 a barrel is being paid - the spot price of oil has recently been around $28 a barrel. A devastating downpour and mudslide last December killed around 15,000 people and rendered homeless ten times that number. Chavez led the army in rescue work, Cuba sent in hundreds of doctors, and the new social fund was mobilised to help the homeless build a new life for themselves. Gott was taken by Chavez on a trip to the new agricultural centres that the government is constructing in the interior.

In the Shadow of the Liberator, as its title implies, introduces us to the "Bolivarian" ideology of Venezuela's new leader. Chavez is obviously eclectic and has found inspiration from a diverse band that includes the Peruvian military leftists of the 1970s, his friend Fidel Castro and the Anglo- Hungarian philosopher Istvan Meszaros. But, without doubt, his main hero is Simon BolIvar, the most outstanding of the 19th- century liberators. Gott provides a fascinating account of what Bolivarianism means as a socio-economic doctrine, of its strange debt to BolIvar's tutor, Simon RodrIguez, and of the latter's elaboration of a doctrine of indigenous development supposedly indebted to Robinson Crusoe (whose fictional island was close to the Venezuelan coast). In English-speaking countries, the Crusoe story is taken as a parable of individualism and colonialism, but, in South America, a more collectivist and nativist interpretation has prevailed, thanks to RodrIguez.

Gott's is the only book we have on Chavez so far, and it is very welcome for this rea-son alone. Astonishingly, the newspapers contrive to ignore the momentous developments in this crucial oil state. This timely book will be eagerly devoured by all those who wish to understand Latin America's new radicalism.

It could not be said that there is a dearth of books on the Mexican revolution and its major protagonists. Nevertheless, Frank McLynn's lively study, Villa and Zapata, is a welcome addition to the abundant literature, furnishing a readable and skilful synthesis of the research of such outstanding scholars as Alan Knight, John Womack and Friedrich Katz. Today, Mexico is grappling with the institutional legacy of the revolution of 1910-20, irrevocably associated with the names of Villa and Zapata because they best symbolised the popular upheaval against oligarchy. Once again, "Zapatistas" issued communiques and, once again, trains laden with merchandise were stopped and sacked by rural rebels. Eventually, it was Alvaro Obregon and Lazaro Cardenas, rather than Villa or Zapata, who gave shape to the revolution. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won more than seven decades of power because the new political structures were sufficiently plastic, and because Cardenas nationalised Mexico's oil and carried through enough land reform to satisfy at least some of the hopes aroused by Zapata and Villa.

Cardenas himself lacked the glamour of a revolutionary hero, but at least he patronised the great mural artists who immortalised the revolution. But it is Zapata and Villa who have mesmerised posterity: the former's memory was burnished by a Hollywood film, while the latter raised $25,000 for one of his campaigns by negotiating a Hollywood contract. As McLynn reminds us, the contract stipulated that his troops should attack only in daylight, and that they must be willing to re-enact any dramatic battle scenes missed by the cameraman; it was around this time, appropriately enough, that Latin Americans invented the word postmodernism.

This month, Cuautemoc Cardenas, the son of Lazaro, sought to keep the flag of the revolution flying in a presidential context, where the tame PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida, was beaten by the former Coca-Cola executive, Vicente Fox. Like his father, Cuautemoc lacks charisma. Unlike his father, he has not succeeded in becoming president (although he came very close in 1988 and probably lost because of fraud). But his party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), won in Mexico City and several states. If Fox, the new president, is a clever man, he will understand that the legacy of the revolution is still very much in contention.

With its resounding historical echoes, McLynn's book helps one to understand the present as well as the past. At one point, he writes that only a Latin American leader who can unite his nation behind him should dare to challenge the United States. For the moment, the current contender in these stakes is Chavez with, at the last count, the support of more than 70 per cent of Venezuelan voters. It will be interesting to see whether this, and Chavez's home-grown ideology, will allow him to succeed in his audacious bid to renew the continental revolutionary tradition.

Robin Blackburn is an editor of the New Left Review

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky