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Saturday, October 01, 2005


Recently, The New York Review of Books has published two fascinating articles by Alma Guillermoprieto on Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Here's a taster of "The Gambler":

Strongmen or caudillos like Chávez, and dictators, too, have always depended on fervent popular support to consolidate their hold on power. How else could they push through the measures that deny their opponents access to a fair hearing or fair trial, or fair elections, and cripple the press? They profit as well from the weird joy many people take in watching a strongman exert his power. In Caracas these days it is dispiriting to hear intellectuals who back Chávez defend him with arguments that have been used too frequently before: el hombre might act like a clown but he is auténtico; he wears designer suits because poor people enjoy seeing him dress up; Chávez is right to repress his opponents because they are reactionary, or corrupt, or dislikable or inept or insignificant; the worst excesses are committed without the President's knowledge and, in any event, his predecessors were just as bad, and at least Chávez is doing something for the poor. And, of course, there is always the question of el imperialismo, a threat universally perceived and all too real: nothing played so magically into a grateful Chávez's hands as Pat Robertson's recent call for the United States to assassinate the elected president of Venezuela, along with the State Department's mealymouthed response.

And here's a taster from "Don't Cry for Me, Venezuela":

The instrument most frequently used by Hugo Chávez against his opponents, however, is not a law but something known everywhere simply as la lista—the list of signatures submitted in 2004 to demand a referendum on Chávez's recall. People on the list cannot get government jobs, or qualify for many of Chávez's public welfare programs, or obtain government contracts. Its use was once surreptitious; officials asked for one's cédula, or ID/voter registration card, and the number was checked against la lista. But since December, when the list was put on the Internet by a chavista member of the National Assembly, it is used openly. "The...list doubtless fulfilled an important role at a given moment, but that's over now," Chávez told his party's elected officials in April, possibly with a wink. A young doctoral candidate I met in July, who had gone to the National Library the previous week to do research, was asked for her cédula by the woman signing passes. Annoyed, my acquaintance asked why. Ay, mi amor, the woman replied. Para la lista.

It is too soon to judge how well the many ambitious social welfare and education programs launched by Chávez —they are known as misiones—have succeeded in redressing Venezuela's deep inequalities, but they suffer already from an essential flaw: as with everything else Chávez creates, their existence depends on him. This would seem to be a reflection of the President's apparent sense that everything that happens, that has happened—in Venezuela, and in this hemisphere as well—in some way relates to him. At a meeting with Uruguayan investors last July he noted that their national independence day was approaching. What a coincidence, he noted: in July also—on July 26, 1953—Fidel led his assault on the Moncada barracks. And on another July 26—in 1952—Evita, Evita Perón, died. "And just two days later," he said, "on July 28th [1954], I was born! Imagine!" There is the melodramatic flair, the flamboyant clothes, the generic love for the poor and the authoritarianism: one could actually think that he is Evita reincarnate, and Perón, too, if it weren't for the fact that Perón died rather late (1975) for a proper transmigration of souls to take place.

Such are the hallucinatory terms in which one can easily find oneself discussing the state of Venezuelan politics. In Caracas today it often seems as if there were no issues, only bilious anger or unconditional devotion—or gasping bafflement—all provoked by the President, who takes up so much oxygen that there is no breathing room left for a discussion of, say, the merits of his neighborhood health policy, his relations with Cuba, or whether the chronically overflowing currency reserves should be used merely to guarantee the rate of exchange or to finance, as Chávez has, the multiplying misiones. How can one reasonably discuss whether the upper management of the oil company was involved in plotting a coup when the President is busy firing seven of those managers on Aló Presidente, saying "You're out!" and giving a blast of an umpire's whistle? And how can an interviewer, in this case Jorge Gestoso of CNN en Español, possibly discuss the merits of such an approach with Chávez when Gestoso must begin by insisting to Chávez that this event actually did take place? The official use of lies, the opposition's terrified rantings, the abandonment of civility by the press and television take place outside the realm of politics, and do away with reason.

More Venezuela info:
UN Human Development Index report
Venezuela's economy in comparison to other countries
Library of Congress Country Study
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