Jorge Ayala is agitated. But it’s not Sydney’s heat wave or the rude waiter that are getting to him right now — it’s Hugo Chavez, president of his native Venezuela. In common with most of 1500 or so Venezuelans living in Australia, Ayala has nothing good to say about Chavez. "If the fate of Venezuela is in the hands of an individual like him, what will result is a totalitarian dictatorship that should no longer exist anywhere in Latin America", he grunts.
On 2 February Hugo Chavez marked 10 years as president of Venezuela. Jorge Ayala, his wife Lucia and their two children have spent almost half of Chavez’s decade in Sydney. Both educated in the US, they are a well-off family who came to Australia with enough financial resources and skills to preserve the high living standards they enjoyed back home.
To Chavez the Ayala family are los rubios, or the "blonde ones" — the white elite that Chavez scorns in his colourful and irreverent rhetoric. "I’m the friend of the poor and the enemy of the rich", Chavez has declared.
And he has put Venezuela’s money where his mouth is. The poor and marginalised have been Chavez’s political capital and also the main beneficiaries of his Government. According to Venezuelan historian Margarita López Maya, over the last 10 years the Government has "incorporated the aspirations of the excluded and the poor and with the constitutional recognition of indigenous people and afro-descendents the concept of citizens has been expanded". As she explains, "the ‘people’ as a political subject re-emerged with Chavez’s populist speech, after being lost in the past government’s neoliberal discourse and exclusionary public policies".
Since he came to power in 1999 (but especially since 2003 when the oil industry was nationalised) Chavez has implemented vast programs of social, education and health improvement.
Over the last decade unemployment has dropped from 11.3 per cent to 7.8 per cent and poverty, an endemic problem in Latin America, has declined in Venezuela. Extreme poverty has fallen from 42 per cent in 1998 to 9.5 per cent. Major gains have also been achieved in education and literacy. The GDP spent on education has grown from 3.9 per cent in 1998 to 7 per cent. Higher education enrolment also doubled between 1999-2000 and 2007-2008.
In a region where literacy is still a major problem, in Venezuela today 90 per cent of adults are able to read and write. Access for millions of Venezuelans to health care has been substantially enhanced. According to the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the number of primary care physicians in the public sector is 12 times what it was in 1999.
In a decade Chavez has re-founded Venezuela. The country, which used to be just "Venezuela", is now the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; it has a new flag and a new constitution. It also has what is being called "21st-century socialism" — which has not yet been clearly defined. What is clear though is that Chavez has privileged the strong role of the State (and also co-operatives) in opposition to the private sector.
Chavez also re-founded the ordinary operation of Venezuelan politics when he broke with the 40 years of what Jennifer McCoy, an American political scientist, calls "partyarchy". For four decades the country had been ruled in line with the Punto Fijo — a corrupt and self-serving bipartisan pact between the two largest political parties in Venezuela, the centre-left Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) and the centre-right Partido Social Cristiano (Christian Social Party or COPEI). This "partyarchy" not only allowed the two to alternate in government but more importantly gave them access to massive oil revenues regardless of who was in power. Punto Fijo‘s inefficient management of its economy and high level of corruption condemned 80 per cent of its 23 million citizens to poverty.
Chavez is a leader whose rhetoric says a lot about his aspirations. "I don’t want to and I shouldn’t leave power. I have to be at the front of the steering wheel for at least 10 more years and then God will decide", Chavez said in one of his recent speeches.
And it is his autocracy and authoritarianism that makes many people, including old sympathisers, worried. Teodoro Petkoff, a former left-wing guerrilla and one of Venezuela’s best-known intellectuals said, "Chavez didn’t come to the presidency on top of a military tank, rather with the people’s vote, but he has regressed into authoritarianism and autocracy."
Chavez’s autocracy and authoritarianism have also put a big dent in his planned Pan-Latin American Bolivarian regional integration. While he has support from a small group of Latin American presidents, the leaders of the most influential countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Chile have shown very little enthusiasm with pan-Americanism led by Chavez. (Using a particularly Chilean manner of speech, a high-ranking official told newmatilda.com over the phone from Santiago, "we would not even go to church with Chavez".)
Chavez’s area of influence in Latin America has today shrunk to five countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras and Dominica; they form the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a mechanism of regional cooperation.
Away from the region, Chavez has forged close relationships with China and Russia and has become a business partner with Iran. And he has shown strong solidarity with the Palestinian cause, breaking diplomatic relationships with Israel following the Gaza invasion. Chavez has had several diplomatic incidents with the United States, but this has not altered the two countries’ mutual dependence: Venezuela’s exports need the US market, and the US needs Venezuela’s oil.
Despite all his social achievements, which are not minor, Chavez is a divisive leader. His political polarisation — as a government strategy — has profoundly divided the country and antagonised many, making him unable to expand his base of political support.
Venezuela is a country of pro-chavistas and anti-chavistas and this explains the convoluted social scenario that in the last 10 years has seen it all: general strikes, mass rallies and even a coup attempt in 2002. It seems, according to sociologist Tulio Hernández, that "only in the long term will it be possible to resolve the contradiction between the half of the population who support Chavez and the other half that systematically reject him".
The challenges ahead for Chavez are daunting. Perhaps the most difficult has to do with the international economic crisis in the context of the falling price of oil. With prices falling from a peak of $147 last July to below $40 per barrel now, Chavez will have less revenue to maintain his social projects. He also has a major challenge in Venezuela’s 31 per cent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America. And while he is assuring the electorate that Venezuela has enough financial reserves in the tank to avoid a recession, figures show the opposite — the cost of living is increasing at the same pace as the oil price falls.
The level of violent crime is another problem. After El Salvador, Venezuela is the most dangerous country in Latin America, with 14,000 murders in 2008. He also has to resolve a food shortage that has put eggs, milk, oil and other basic staples on the list of rationed foods.
Amid all this, he is mounting a referendum this coming Sunday that seeks to remove the limits in the constitution that restrict the president and other elected officials to serving only two terms. He already lost a similar referendum in December 2007. It seems, though, that this time around he will pull it off. According to a study by the private firm Datanálisis, the "yes" option has 51.1 per cent support and the "no" 49 per cent.
Chavez is still a popular leader. His support is between 57 and 60 per cent and with a weak opposition, he seems to be the only option. Frederico Fuentes, a social researcher at the Miranda International Centre in Caracas, told newmatilda.com that a more significant indicator of the future than Chavez’s popularity index is the "absolute conviction among Venezuelans that their lives have changed dramatically and they don’t want to go back to the old system".
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