Story Publication logo November 26, 2006

Chavez is Potent Force



Andrew Cutraro and Guy Taylor uncloak the cult of personality surrounding the Bolivarian movement of...

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Women faint when they meet him. Men create stampedes to keep up with caravans he leads through impoverished cities where prior generations of leaders have not dared tread.

"When you see him in person, it's something that cannot be explained," said Susana Fonseca, craning her neck for a better view of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as he worked his way through a mob of admirers here earlier this month.

"We've never had men like him in our history," said Fonseca, 43, a public accountant.

With his trademark red collared shirt, his anti-U.S. outbursts and his relentless pursuit of what he calls a "21st century socialism," Chávez is the most prominent of a series of leftists who have recently taken power in South America and appears to be Washington's chief regional foe. While working to construct a socialist future in the region, he also has become a thorn in the side of the U.S. government, cultivating friendships with U.S. rivals, such as Iran.

Chávez is expected to hold onto his post in elections Dec. 3 and with it control over what U.S. and international experts think to be the world's largest untapped oil reserves. The country's state-controlled oil industry is fourth on the list of U.S. oil importers, behind Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, respectively.

His oil and his liberally expressed hatred for President George W. Bush get headlines in the United States. But in Venezuela, millions of supporters like Fonseca are wowed by what they say are Chávez's rare, God-given charisma, and his genuine commitment to channeling his country's vast oil revenue toward the neediest members of society.

Critics, a largely wealthy minority in Venezuela, see it otherwise. They argue that Chávez is a media-savvy psychological warrior whose sophisticated propaganda campaign has resulted in a cult of followers increasingly blind to the failure of the dictatorial socialism with which he is attempting to replace modern society.

"Some people may see him as a saint," said Pablo Medina, a former Chávez backer and Venezuelan senator turned opposition activist in recent years. "There is an important sector of the population that sees him as the opposite, as a devil.

"But the real problem," he said, "is the cult of personality."

Images of Chávez are posted all over Caracas, showing him holding children or standing among admiring throngs of supporters. His photograph hangs everywhere, from lampposts in the city center to the corrugated tin walls of shantytowns on its outskirts.

Comparing Chávez to former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Medina calls the Chávez phenomenon "the classic Stalinist cult of personality typical of any dictatorship."

What's different about Chávez is that he is not portrayed as an almighty figure who can do no wrong, but as a man of the people whose mistakes actually become part of his appeal.

Color of the revolution

It was Chávez's admission of failure more than a decade ago that fascinated Edgar Cortez, 28. A political science major, Cortez studies at the newly established and free Bolivarian University — named after Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary who led Venezuela to independence from Spain in 1821.

In the early 1990s, plummeting oil prices combined with corruption in the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez plunged Venezuela into an economic crisis. Violent street demonstrations erupted.

In the wake of the violence, Chávez, then a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan military, attempted to lead a socialist military coup. When the coup failed, Pérez's government allowed Chávez, a previously unknown figure, to appear on national television to publicly surrender and avoid further bloodshed.

The result was a now-famous, minutelong televised statement in which Chávez told viewers that "I alone shoulder the responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising."

Chávez would be sentenced to an eight-year prison term for his actions. But his remark, Cortez thinks, immortalized him in the eyes of supporters because it steadfastly broke from the norm of corrupt Venezuelan leaders who would do
anything but accept responsibility for their failures.

"I was just a kid at the time," Cortez said. "I didn't know who Chávez was. I was watching TV that day and I saw that, and the first thing that came to my mind was … 'He's not a politician.'"‰"

Carmelo Velasquez is a Chávez supporter from El Valle, a lower middle-class neighborhood in Caracas.

"He has a tremendous ability to capture what people expect," said Velasquez, 28. "He's a master of identifying what people want to listen to. He's what I would call a serpent enchanter, and of course, he's also good at speaking."

But Velasquez also thinks there are racial factors at play behind both Chávez's rise in popularity among the poor and his infamy among the elite. Racially, Chávez is a "mestizo," a term Venezuelans use to refer to someone of mixed European, African and indigenous South American blood.

The government census does not ask citizens for their racial background, but independent groups estimate that about 60 percent of Venezuelans are mestizo.

Velasquez contends that many of the country's elite — the majority of whom are white — "have a problem with Chávez because he's a product of the melting pot," while at the same time, Chávez has "returned pride" to the country's poor, most of whom are mestizo.

According to Velasquez, Chávez has made people ask themselves: "Why should you be ashamed if you are poor?"

Statistics to prove such assertions might be impossible to come by, but mestizo Venezuelans living in poor areas are not ashamed to point out their solidarity with Chávez.

During a recent pro-Chávez political rally in Macarao, a mountainside settlement of slums on the outskirts of Caracas, Migdalia Figueredo, a woman of tan complexion in her late 30s, rubbed her forearm.

"You see this?" she asked. "This is the color of the revolution."

"A personal crusade"

A year after Chávez's failed coup attempt, Pérez was impeached by the Venezuelan congress amid allegations of corruption. In 1994, Chávez was pardoned from prison. The seeds he had planted during his brief television appearance two years earlier began to bear fruit.

With the previous government in shambles, Chávez was elected president in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote. He moved swiftly to draft a new constitution, rename the country the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," and establish emergency relief programs for the more than half of Venezuela's 25 million citizens who live below the poverty line.

Critics argue that once in power, Chávez also moved swiftly to centralize and drive opposition from the government, as well as stack the country's highest courts with his supporters.

His presence began to dominate Venezuelan state media. He appeared almost daily for lengthy stretches on state TV, which covers his campaign rallies and presidential appearances with the same zeal that C-SPAN covers action on the floor of the U.S. House and Senate.

Meanwhile, he has gone to war with the country's increasingly anti-Chávez private media, owned by the country's wealthy elite.

"The only public power that is not in the hands of Chávez is the media power," said Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of El Nacional, a leading Caracas-based newspaper critical of Chávez. "He's on a personal crusade."

Otero said recent years had seen the government build a legal framework against private media, which "in the long run, could be used to control all of the country's radio and television stations." Specifically, he cited the passage of a 2004 "media responsibility" law, which the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said "severely threatens media freedoms in Venezuela."

Chávez has yet to enforce the law, which gives him broad powers to revoke licenses of private news organizations that do not provide proof for their reporting. He has, however, made regular mention of it in speeches, apparently as a means of threatening opposition TV stations.

The most recent example came earlier this month after several of the private stations broadcast a video of a speech in which the country's oil minister, Rafael Ramirez, was recorded urging all state oil employees to vote for Chávez in the upcoming election or risk losing their jobs.

Chávez lashed out against the TV stations, reminding an audience of supporters that private television stations must renew their licenses in the coming months. "Don't be surprised if I say there are no more concessions to some TV
channels," he said.

He also pointed out that during a failed, U.S.-backed coup brought against him in 2002, some private channels broadcast cartoons while throngs of his supporters took to the streets demanding his return to power.

Claiming that the "same coup-plotters and assassins" remain active, Chávez warned his supporters to be vigilant of another possible coup attempt, as the opposition is still "calling for Chávez to be taken out."

María Corina Machado, co-founder of and director of Súmate, a Caracas-based civic organization that has worked closely with the opposition in the upcoming election, called Chávez "a consequence of many years of wrongdoing" in Venezuelan government.

"I think there are some people that have an innate instinct, and Chávez is one of them; he is a great communicator capable of establishing an emotional relationship with wide sectors of this population that probably none of our leaders in the last century was able to do," Machado said.

But, she added, "it's hard to talk about democracy in Venezuela when you realize that every single power is controlled by the executive branch. The Supreme Court, the electoral council, the district attorney and the national assembly, all are totally controlled by the president."

Castro-style appeal

Before Chávez's rise, poor Venezuelans felt ostracized by a succession of previous leaders that Chávez now describes as slaves to an unjust model of government promoted across South America by the United States during the Cold

Luisa Nieves, 53, said a core of impoverished Venezuelans had waited for decades for a leader like Cuba's Fidel Castro to come to their rescue.

"I believe that Castro is a humanitarian," said Nieves, a coordinator for 15 free health clinics opened in her neighborhood since Chávez took power.

Like more than 400 others that have opened in Caracas since Chávez was elected, each of the clinics is staffed by a Cuban doctor sent as part of an "oil-for-doctors" agreement forged between Chávez and Castro, whose country remains under U.S.-imposed economic sanctions.

"Since I was a small girl, I've listened to Castro's name and I've heard of him. If he were a bad person, the people would not be supporting him," she said. "We're headed toward 21st century socialism. It's a socialism of equality, with no racial discrimination."

A central appeal of Chávez is that "he comes from humble beginnings," said Nieves. "He knows what hunger is, what misery is and rejection. For all of us who are poor, he's the only person."

Many of Venezuela's poor also welcome Chávez's regular public criticisms of Bush, the most notorious example being the speech in September at the United Nations in which he referred to Bush as "the devil."

Citing Bush's own speech made a day earlier at the U.N., Chávez charged Bush with appearing "as the spokesman of imperialism" bent on trying "to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world."

For Nieves, the remarks were a long time in coming. "Mr. Bush believes he is a god," she said. "We were very proud that (Chávez) put George Bush in his place, and he did it on Mr. Bush's turf."

Not everyone agrees, especially among the country's small but emerging middle class. Some say they are embarrassed by the presence of Cuban doctors in Venezuela and are made uncomfortable by Chávez's anti-Bush rants.

"I think Chávez has a lot of charisma, and obviously he has people who follow him without thinking, no matter what he says or does," said Patricia Mora, 25, who works in the human resources department of the state oil company.

As for his discourse against Bush, Mora said, "I think it's offensive and exaggerated, especially the devil comment."

"Chávez is a hypocrite," she added. "He and all of his followers, because they always talk about the evils of the wild neo-liberal capitalism, but they want to go to the U.S. and to know Mickey Mouse, and go to McDonald's, and they're happy to buy these brand names like Levi's, Nike, Diesel, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace."

See the Post-Dispatch's slideshow of Andrew Cutraro's photographs.

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