The 2000 election must not be forgotten.
The world needs more ballots, not more bullets.
Cracks in the Coalition
The rest of the world begins to sour on the war.
Abortion Under Attack
Chipping away at the right to choose.
But Venezuela's "revolution" faces many obstacles.
Selling the War.
The IRA moves forward with decommissioningbut some loyalists don't want peace.
New Yorkers elect Bloomberg as their next mayor.
There's a Police Riot Goin' On
Anti-war marchers feel the chill in Connecticut.
Climate of Fear
Long Island activist is charged as a "terrorist."
Fred Korematsu made a federal case out of it.
MUSIC: No joy for New Order.
The Vagina that Roared
BOOKS: Susanna Kaysen's "sore spot."
FILM: Fat Girl and French Feminism.
Mind out of Time
The seven ages of Bob.
November 9, 2001
New World Order
But Venezuela's "revolution" faces many obstacles.
23rd-story offices of the Venezuelan Ministry of Planning, the slums can be
seen stretching out across the verdant mountainsides and far into the distance.
Equally clear, on the highway just below, are the swank SUVs of the upper classes,
streaming out of town and back to their gated redoubts. Inside the office, the
walls are covered from floor to ceiling with dry-erase boards and butcher paper
illustrating elaborate visions of an alternative future.
Were trying to have a revolution with the enemy inside, explains
Enrique Vila, a poet, professor, artist and now a leading planner in Venezuelas
populist government. Its not easy. Vila is in charge of building
a series of large, experimental, economically self-sufficient, ecologically
sustainable rural communities, complete with local currencies and organic farmingthe
kind of thing most Berkeley anarchists only dream about.
But Vilas planned communities are just one example of a broader, frequently
overlooked social experiment that began here with the election of President
Hugo Chavez in late 1998. Attacked by the American right as a military thughis
first bid at power was a failed coup attempt in 1992Chavez remains something
of an enigma. Is he a populist blowhard, talking tough but doing little? An
old-school Marxist, minus the Soviet subsidies? A far-left authoritarian, waiting
to blossom? Or a doomed balcony socialist in the tradition of Perus Gen.
Juan Velasco or Panamas Omar Torrijos?
Or, perhaps most interesting, how is it that Chavez and his posse havent
learned the famous Thacherite lesson: There Is No Alternative?
Since taking office, Chavez has done more than just hire bohemian planners.
His Bolivarian Revolutionnamed for Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century
South American liberatorhas ratified a new constitution, abolished Venezuelas
plutocratic upper house and overhauled the countrys corrupt judiciary.
His party, the MVR (or Fifth Republic Movement), also has won big in congressional,
state and local elections. More important for the impoverished majority, Chavez
has reined in inflation, boosted growth rates, beefed up social spending, launched
a massive public works program and clamped down on tax evasion.
On the international front, Chavez has been just as daring. He has brought
Venezuela closer to Fidel Castroswapping Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors
and sports instructorsand has sharply criticized the policies of savage
neoliberalism imposed on Latin America by the United States. Chavez has
even withdrawn the Venezuelan military from regional naval exercises in the
Caribbean and denied the U.S. military access to Venezuelan airspace, thus hampering
Washingtons proxy war in Colombia. Most recently, he has criticized U.S.
bombing of Afghanistan as fighting terrorism with terrorism.
Chavezs trump card is oil: Venezuela has the largest petroleum reserves
outside the Middle East and is the largest U.S. source of gasoline and heating
oil. Petroleum revenues account for a third of Venezuelas economic activity
and three-quarters of its exports. Oil also pays for Chavezs redistributive
social projects and gives little Venezuela major clout on the world stage. Through
the efforts of its former minister of energy and mines, Ali Rodriguez (a former
Marxist guerrilla turned statesman), Venezuela has led a revitalization of OPEC,
which in turn has boosted the price of crude oil from $8 a barrel to as high
as $35 a barrel.
he government knows how to play chess. I am trying to teach them how to play
Go, says Vila, referring to the Chinese board game in which a player attempts
to surround and absorb his opponents pieces rather than strike and remove
them. The metaphor helps explain the whole Bolivarian project, which aims to
develop some sort of semi-socialist mixed economics without alienating the private
In practical terms, that means diversifying and restructuring a distorted and
oil-fixated economy in which 80 percent of all food and consumer goods are imported.
According to government and international figures, 45 percent of Venezuelans
are marginally employed in the informal economy; 80 percent are
defined as poor; half of those are critically poor,
meaning they cant afford an adequate diet. Thus, the immediate task of
the Chavez government has been to redistribute wealth and services down the
social hierarchy by beefing up services, creating jobs for the poor and making
the rich pay higher taxes.
At the same time, the Chavistas want to redistribute population and investment
more evenly across the country. Were not talking about forcing anyone
out of cities, Vila says, but rather about attracting them back
to the countryside with economic opportunities. Sixty percent of the nations
capital is currently invested in a narrow coastal belt around Caracas. As a
result, 85 percent of the population has concentrated in the city and a handful
of other northern coastal urban centers. Vilas planned communitiesthe
largest will house 3,400 peopleare prototypes of what a more balanced
and sustainable form of development might look like.
Thanks to consultation with regular Venezuelans, the visionary settlements
will also be pragmatic. This will be cooperative living, not utopian collectivism,
Vila says. Toward that end, the settlements are composed of individual, private
homes with familial land plots for subsistence crops, such as yucca and beans.
But there will also be larger communally owned parcels for producing cash crops
such as melons, oil palms and livestock. Much of the communitys waste
will be recycled in state-of-the-art biodigesters, producing fertilizer
and biogas fuel. The goal, Vila says, is to create a zero-pollution circular
Politically and educationally, the communities are designed to be relatively
autonomous and self-governing with decision-making councils that ascend from
the level of the neighborhood to the community as a whole. Most of the families,
all of whom are now marginally housed and willing to participate in such an
experiment, have already been chosen. The first settlers are due to move in
at the end of this year. But the communities are still under construction; their
layouts look like dusty crop circles in the jungle.
eanwhile, Chavez is proceeding in more traditional ways. Last year the government
created a thousand Bolivarian Schools, which provide students with
additional hours of instruction and two hot meals a day. Teachers salaries
were doubled, and public schools were forbidden from charging parents supplementary
fees. As a result, primary school enrollment increased by a million students.
The goal for 2001 is to convert 3,000 more schools to the Bolivarian model and
to keep the school kitchens open throughout the summer.
The rather backward, USAID-inspired curriculum too is being overhauled. Leading
the educational revamp is a Marxist sociologist and former guerrilla named Carlos
Lanz. He wants a curriculum that teaches Venezuelans to reject individualism
and competitiveness and the concentration of property among few
people, classes or social layers. But the schools have been derided in
the U.S. press as militarized brainwashing academies and denounced by critics
at home as a sign of creeping Cubanization.
The government also has quadrupled spending on health care, is constructing
rural clinics, and now provides free emergency care in Venezuelas public
hospitals. The state funds a nationwide chain of subsidized pharmacies called
SUMED, where drugs sell for 30 to 40 percent below market prices. Similarly,
the military has created subsidized popular markets in which soldiers
with otherwise idle military vehicles are sent into the countryside to buy produce
from farmers, transport it to towns and cities, then sell it at below cost to
small vendors who pass on a 30 percent savings to consumers.
To deal with unemployment, the government is attempting to create 100,000 new
jobs through civic-military production units, in which soldiers
and civilians work together on road-building, forest restoration and agricultural
projects. At times the role of this military involvement in social projects
takes on absurd dimensions. When university student Manuel Bazo first heard
the helicopters and then saw them dropping leaflets, he feared the worst. I
thought it was a coup, he recalls. Not quite. It was just an informational
literature drop to inform people in a nearby barrio when the army would be sending
in dentists, barbers and other free services.
ost of the money for the reform program comes from recently buoyant oil prices,
but the Chavez government is also seeking to redirect state funds that are currently
consumed by a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. We may have political
power, but we still dont control the government, says Gilberto Buenano,
vice minister of regional planning, who, like Vila, got his Ph.D. at Berkeley
in the late 60s. Here in Venezuela, those are two very different
According to Buenano, the countrys vast oil wealthas much as $20
billion in annual revenueshas created not just oligarchs, but also a parasitic
middle class. Venezuelas financially flush, labyrinthine state sector
has plenty of room for nepotism, patronage, corruption and sheltered incompetence.
The World Bank says the only solution is mass privatization. The Chavistas agree
with the diagnosis but refuse the neoliberal medicine. They want to make the
state efficient, not sell it off to foreign interests.
Using his weekly radio call-in show, Aló Presidente, Chavez routinely
urges workers and consumers to denounce corruption where they see it. And although
the government has raised wages across the board, it also has tried to eliminate
thousands of government jobswhich the Chavistas insist are sinecures.
For example, one steel mill in Ciudad Guyana is said to have as many 6,000 people
on the payroll who dont exist.
But attempts to eliminate this sort of bloat have caused a massive backlash
from the countrys unions, which have staged scores of strikes in every
sector of the economy. Though vexed by the labor disputes, the government is
also proud of its record in handling them. In all these strikes not a
single person has been killed, there are no political prisoners, Buenano
says. Not even our most rabid opponents can accuse us of repression.
Yet the presidents electoral successes have yet to translate into grassroots
participatory structures. Nowhere is such failure more apparent than in the
unions. Shown in numerous opinion polls to be among the least credible and least
respected institutions in the nation, the old-guard trade union leadership was
dealt a serious blow in December 2000, when 67 percent of voters passed a referendum
mandating the direct election of union leaders by the rank and file. The plan
was simple: force the unions to democratize, then take power from the old guard
hacks in clean elections. But now those internal elections are underway, the
Bolivarian activists are losing badly.
sector also is being leaned on to help pay for the reform and development campaign.
In June, government officials announced plans to clamp down on tax evasion by
large businesses. Investigators plan to audit about a thousand companies, but
among the first targeted are a major television network, a bank and a leading
telecommunications firm. Despite all appearances of profitability, these firms
claim they cannot afford to pay taxes. I dont believe them,
Chavez said in a mid-June radio broadcast. Either they pay, or their bones
will end up in prison.
Yet another hurdle for the Chavistas is a quiet human capital strike
among the professional classes. There is an internal brain drain: engineers,
accountants and agronomistshopped-up on anti-Chavez propagandarefuse
to participate in alternative development projects, while local doctors prefer
to focus on plastic surgery for the countrys legendary beauty queens rather
than tend to the needs of the rural poor. This lack of support is particularly
frustrating because much of Chavezs macroeconomic program has benefited
the professional classes. Since taking office, the administration has cut inflation
from around 40 percent to a projected 12 percent for this year. Meanwhile, the
Venezuelan economy is expected to grow by a healthy 4 percent this year, according
to Credit Suisse First Boston.
Yet the middle-class-oriented news media remain uniformly hostile. Not a day
passes without anti-Chavez calumny covering almost every front page. Both print
and broadcast outlets routinely fabricate stories about impending martial law,
economic collapse or new medical evidence that Chavez is psychotic. Along with
the frenzied red-baiting, the media attack Chavez for being vulgar
and unculturedcode that is widely understood as a reference
to his African and indigenous origins and working-class mannerisms.
Amid this self-induced paranoia, Venezuelan capitalists have reduced domestic
investment, citing political instability. Instead, much of the countrys
liquid assets are piped to Miami; one economist estimated such capital flight
at more than $10 billion last year alone. The government is trying to incubate
small firms with a new micro-lending law and cheap loans from newly created
state banks. But these banks have already become mired in corruption and inefficiency.
Some Chavez supporters are urging the president to publicly court the middle
classes and national bourgeoisie. The problem is that Chavez has to talk
tough or lose some of his base, explains Walter Sandoval, an economic
journalist with the Caracas daily El Nacional. Sandoval says the poor
want changeand lots of itright now. And while governments
increased social spending has positive impacts, the economic position of most
people has not changed fundamentally. Nor are the poor likely to wait patiently
if Chavez coddles and coaxes cooperation from the spooked shopping-mall set.
All of this has left Chavez in a bizarre predicament: economically serving but
politically alienating the middle-class professionals his development plans
Despite all of the obstacles, many Chavistas remain hopeful. Little by
little, itll happen, says Don Julio Cezar, a restaurateur in the
small beach town of Santa Fe. The people are learning, the economy is
developing. This is not a violent revolutionitll take time.
fficially, the United States has taken a wait-and-see attitude
toward Chavez, but Washingtons stance may be hardening. I am concerned
sometimes when I see what [Chavez] does, Vice President Dick Cheney told
The Associated Press in early June. He was democratically elected by the
people of Venezuela, and that counts for something. Sometimes, I wish he had
other friends is the way Id describe it.
More threatening are the bellicose allegations from the State Departments
specialist on Latin America, Peter Romero, who has called Chavez and his civilian
defense minister, Jose Vincente Rangel, professional agitators.
There are indications that the government of Chavez has supported violent
indigenous movements in Bolivia and, in the case of Ecuador, military coup members,
Romero told the Washington Post.
Shortly after these statements, the Miami Herald reported that Washington
was reducing its intelligence cooperation with Venezuela because, as one official
explained, There was a sense that anything we gave the Venezuelans would
wind up in Havana. And in late October, angered by Chavezs public
criticisms of the slaughter of innocents in Afghanistan, the United
States called its ambassador back to Washington for consultations.
Another serious threat is Washingtons ability to exert economic pressure
on Venezuela. In an attempt to diversify the economy, Chavez sought to join
the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA) and thus gain better access to U.S.
markets, but American officials have signaled their reluctance to permit Venezuelas
entry. On ATPA, Venezuela is going to have an uphill battle because a
lot of folks here are concerned about reaching out to Chavez at a time when
hes not being very friendly to us, a Republican congressional aide
told the Herald.
None of this American hostility is lost on Venezuelans. Before departing Caracas,
we eat the traditional dish of arrepas and drink rum with a diehard trade unionist.
He says the Chavistas are ready to arm themselves to defend the revolution at
all costs. Any coup attempt will lead to civil war, he warns, adding:
I wonder if the oil-hungry United States is really ready for that.
John Marshall is a researcher and analyst working in the U.S. labor
movement. Christian Parenti is the author of Lockdown America
and teaches at the New College of California in San Francisco.