Fortunes for Hugo Chavez
Washington, D.C., VOA news
Venezuela's fiery President Hugo Chavez is the subject of both adulation
and scorn. Some say he is headed toward despotism; others claim he
is a man of the people. And still others say he is both.
When Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was first elected president in 1998,
oil-rich Venezuela was ripe for change. For four decades, two parties
- - the Democratic Action Party and the Christian Democratic Party
-- dominated the political scene. During that time, many observers
note, no Latin American country deteriorated more than Venezuela.
Its gross domestic product fell nearly 40 percent; three-quarters
of the population lived below the poverty line.
According to Riordan Roett, Director of the Western Hemisphere Program
at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, the country's old political
elites were guilty of rampant corruption and mismanagement.
"The Christian Democrats and the Democratic Action Party captured
the Venezuelan state in the 1970s and 1980s, and robbed it blind.
And they bear heavy responsibility for not taking the appropriate
social development policies in the last quarter of the last century.
[Hugo] Chavez would not exist if the oil wells in Venezuela had been
invested in the Venezuelan people, rather than in the pockets of its
politicians," says Professor Roett.
He adds that Venezuela's oil wealth -- the largest oil reserves in
the Western Hemisphere -- only deepened the discontent of the poor.
When Mr. Chavez entered politics, his confrontational style and populist
rhetoric served him well. He came to office in a landslide victory
in 1998 and was re-elected two years later on his promise to help
the poor and reorder the political system.
But many critics point out that in the past several years, Mr. Chavez
has taken personal control of economic matters, tightening his grip
over the military and expanding its role. Moreover, a constituent
assembly, which is chiefly made up of Chavez supporters, has written
a new constitution that granted the president increased powers and
weakens the legislature and judiciary.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa of The Independent Institute, a public policy
organization based in California, contends that Hugo Chavez bears
all of the hallmarks of an autocrat.
He says, "Chavez is a prototype of a Latin American populist
caudillo [i.e., a Latin American military dictator]. Populism has
been a staple of Latin America for much of the last century. He came
to power thanks to the dishonor of the political class. He has concentrated
unhealthy amounts of power and he is using populism thanks to the
windfall he obtained from oil to create a large base of support."
Michael Shifter, Vice President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a
Washington-based center for policy analysis argues Mr. Chavez has
certain authoritarian tendencies. He says Venezuela is currently pursuing
“a model that basically tries to get as many resources to consolidate
his power and create patronage, so that he can enhance his own political
support in Venezuela and abroad. I don't think there has been any
strategy of development. So there is militarism, nationalism, socialism
-- a mix of a lot of different things."
Vulnarable Economic Strategy
Some analysts, including Mark Weisbrot, Co-director of the Washington-based
Center for Economic and Policy Research, argue that the Venezuelan
leader and his party, the Fifth Republic Movement, spent the first
few years of Mr. Chavez's administration trying to survive turmoil:
a right-wing coup attempt in 2002 and several oil strikes that crippled
the economy in 2002 and 2003.
"Since then, all they have done is try to deliver on some of
their promises. The government is very cognizant of the fact that
they have inherited a dysfunctional state from the past and they have
only been able to make limited gains. 54 percent of the country now
has free healthcare and a majority also gets subsidized food. But
he wears a beret. He is a former military officer. So people use this
imagery to say it is not a democratic country," argues analyst
Many Venezuela-watchers agree that Mr. Chavez's popularity with the
country's poor strengthened as he made more funds available for social
programs. But most analysts, including Riordan Roett of The Johns
Hopkins University, question the long-term effectiveness of President
Chavez's economic strategy.
He warns, "If you look behind the façade, what you have
is a country in which poverty really hasn't been reduced very much.
Most of what he has done is handouts to the poor, but no real long-term
investment decisions have been made. Oil production is down from where
it was ten years ago. PVDSA [Petroleos of Venezuela, the state- run
oil company], which was once one of the best-run oil companies in
the world, is no longer very well run. And Chavez has been purchasing
oil in European markets to meet his forward contracts. So that doesn't
give you a very healthy picture of the economy.”
A Call for South American Unity
Professor Roett says the Venezuelan leader has been able to escape
accountability because of the country's oil bonanza, which has allowed
him to establish what the government calls an 'international development
fund', worth an estimated $20 billion, which Mr. Chavez has used to
buy influence in the region.
Since taking office, Hugo Chavez has insisted that Venezuela should
use its oil wealth to lead South America toward political unity and
stand up to foreign powers, mainly the United States. Most observers
say Mr. Chavez has given perhaps millions of dollars in financial
support to like-minded Latin American leaders, courted friendships
with countries like Cuba and Iran, and also alarmed Washington with
his anti-American rhetoric, arms purchases and recent statements that
Venezuela is seeking nuclear technology.
But President Chavez might be over reaching. Recent opinion polls
show that less than a third of Venezuelans believe the country should
spend its oil revenues abroad. And his open support of South American
leftist populists has alienated some of his supporters in the region.
According to Vargas Llosa, Mr. Chavez's political fortunes are mostly
tied to his country's economy -- if it falters, so will his appeal.
He warns, "In every single case, from the Mexican revolution
in the early 20th century to the 1980s, which was a very populist
decade, you've seen the same story all over again. These populists
had a very rosy few years in power and then that made a turn toward
a very ugly situation. I imagine that will be the case for Chavez."
Yet other analysts caution that with oil prices at record highs, there
may be little in the way of Mr. Chavez's advance and popularity, at
least in the near-term.
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