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28 April 2003

Hero of the shanty towns

Grace Livingstone in Venezuela finds that, while the liberal middle class has deserted Chavez, the p

By Grace Livingstone

The guidebooks tell you not to talk politics in Venezuela. But when I arrived in Caracas on the first anniversary of a failed coup against the populist president, Hugo Chavez, I found that everybody had their piece to say about his “Bolivarian revolution”. The first people I talked to were a group of charity workers. All had voted for Chavez – who was elected with a landslide both in 1998 and 2000 – but none intended to again. The economy was in a mess, they said, his policies for the poor were tokenistic and his language was inflammatory. Only the young black receptionist was of a different opinion. “I am a Chavista. He talks our language. He’s not like other politicians who talk about ‘fiscal’ this, ‘economic’ that. He speaks like us.”

Returning to my hostel that evening, I ask the nightwatchman about support for Chavez. He points to the shanty towns that are built precariously all the way up the red-earth mountains which encircle Caracas, and says: “You see those ranchos up there? The people who live there support Chavez.”

Why? The prices of basic foodstuffs – maize flour, milk and beans – have been controlled, he says. The enrolment fee for state schools has been abolished and medicine and food in hospitals is now free, (although there are worsening shortages). Furthermore, an urban land law has given property titles to shanty town-dwellers.

It is 11 April, one year to the day after a group of army officers arrested Chavez and the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce dissolved the national assembly and declared himself president. After people flooded on to the streets and many army units remained loyal to the government, Chavez was released two days later. “You should have seen this mountainside. It was like a giraffe with moving spots,” says the watchman, describing how the people rushed down from the hills to protest against the coup.

The next morning, I ask the waitress serving breakfast what she thinks. She draws up a chair and lights a cigarette: “I am 51. I haven’t voted since I was 19 years old, but now if I get the chance I will vote for him.”

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Of the six cooks and cleaners here, five support Chavez. “I live in the shanty towns,” one cleaner tells me. “Before the politicians robbed us, things never changed, same old crap . . . Now my daughter can go to school all day. The rich, they don’t understand.” As we talk, the manager approaches: the women quickly change the subject. I have the impression that there is a sharp division of views here, along class lines.

There is also a growing politicisation. I interview a random sample of people on a pro-Chavez rally on 13 April, which attracted perhaps 300,000 people. One is a street vendor; another is a chambermaid in a big hotel in central Caracas (who estimates, unscientifically, that of the 100 maids in the hotel, only ten are anti-Chavez); one is an unemployed printworker; another a former trade unionist at an animal feed factory. Only one could be described as middle class, a teacher at a private school, who describes himself as a “low-profile Chavista”. None had been politically active before.

Many have joined Bolivarian Circles (which take their name from Simon BolIvar, who liberated the region from Spain in the 1800s), groups that proselytise and carry out social work in the community. Although they encourage political participation, the circles have a client relationship with the government, on which they depend for funds. A few activists are trying to build a more democratic structure by organising municipal-wide assemblies of circle members.

After last year’s coup, Chavez took a conciliatory line with the opposition, but he has noticeably stiffened his stance since defeating a two-month strike in February. The stoppage was led by Venezuela’s most important business federation and an opposition trade union confederation, with the overt support of Venezuela’s private TV networks. Chavez has issued arrest warrants for the strike leaders, whom he describes as “terrorists”.

Bedecked in a red beret and red tunic, and standing on an open-air podium behind a huge hoarding saying: “13 April, Day of the Heroic People”, Chavez declares: “The difference between our revolution and that of Salvador Allende in 1973 is that the Chilean revolution was peaceful and unarmed . . . But our Bolivarian revolution is peaceful and armed! We have tanks! We have guns! We have thousands of soldiers!” he tells a cheering crowd.

Chavez says the “free market cannot be allowed to run the world” and heaps praise on “our dear friend Cuba”. But it is not entirely clear what his Bolivarian revolution entails. He has not expropriated any businesses or land, though public spending has risen and been targeted towards the poorest. However, his finance minister tightened fiscal policy as the deficit grew last year and has been careful to meet foreign debt payments. Business has had to face some tax rises, a crackdown on evasion, and more red tape. Since February, the government has introduced capital controls and sacked half the workforce of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, which launched the strike against the government. Now PDVSA is to be transformed into a company “for the people”, but will continue to run joint projects with transnationals, such as a huge gas project being launched with Shell and Mitsubishi.

The clearest change here is in the political atmosphere. Like many Chavistas I met, the unemployed printer said: “I am a Venezuelan convinced of the need for change. The people have awoken after 40 years of corruption and poverty. With or without Chavez, this movement is not going to disappear.”

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