By Ruth Morris
FRONTLINE/World reporter Ruth
August 24, 2004
Bottom of the Ninth
President Hugo Chavez strode into the press conference wearing a business suit and tie. Thickset and unabashed, he grinned broadly at the crush of reporters assembled before him. There were journalists from around the world, pens poised, ready to take down his last words before an extraordinary recall vote that could very well oust him.
But if Chavez was worried, he didn't show it. He oozed confidence and charm.
"Thank you very much," he said in thickly accented English, smiling
to his international audience. Chavez doesn't really speak English,
but he does have a strong command of baseball terminology, which
he injected into his comments that day -- as he often does during
marathon speeches. And now it was the bottom of the ninth, and
half the country expected Chavez to strike out.
I'd come to Venezuela to try to understand how this affable ex-paratrooper
had grown into the most polemical leader in the Western Hemisphere,
inspiring seething hatred in his opponents and jealous devotion
in his followers. Since Chavez was re-elected in 2000, Venezuela
has split into two feuding camps: his poverty-stricken supporters,
living in roughshod housing, and his well-heeled detractors, living
in the comfortable high-rises built during Venezuela's earlier
oil booms. Chavez sympathizers might have a glass of water thrown
at them in an elegant café; an opposition leader wouldn't
dream of setting foot in one of the slums that climb the hills
The August 15 vote that awaited Chavez had been billed as the
last act, the culmination of a fervent campaign to drive him
from office. To force the recall referendum, Chavez opponents
had collected 2.4 million signatures. The referendum was to
bring a record number of people to the polls, and with the severe
bottlenecking at voting stations, many Venezuelans would stand
in line under a scorching sun for 11 or 12 hours, determined
to cast their ballot.
Venezuelans read the newspaper while lining up to vote
in the national referendum in Caracas, Venezuela,
Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004. (AP/Wide World Photos)
So what was it about Chavez that motivated so many people
to weigh in on his presidency even if it meant standing in lines
that trailed off for nearly a mile? Why did they feel so strongly
about him? And once the votes were tallied, would the election
help mend the country's deep rift?
Waiters passed black coffee to journalists, and Chavez began
to play ball. During the next three-and-a-half hours -- and
that's short for a Chavez address -- he delved into his plans
to flood poor barrios with doctors and food banks, then railed
against U.S. free trade policies, which he branded as "imperialism."
He promoted his "Bolivarian" revolution, named after the region's
early 19th-century independence hero, Simón Bolívar,
and called for a united bloc of Latin American countries to
counter what he labels "the colossus from the north."
The Simon Bolivar Plaza, depicting a quote from Simon
Bolivar, a 19th century revolutionary whose dreams of
an independent and united South America Hugo Chavez
hopes to fulfill.
Later, in response to a question about CIA involvement in Venezuela, Chavez rambled off track. The CIA sees itself as James Bond, he said, insisting that the dashing, fictional spook had suffered a slump in popularity lately. That reminded Chavez that Tarzan and Dracula were having image problems, too, which in turn reminded him of Batman and Robin. He paused to reflect on Christopher Reeve's riding accident and how, in Reeve's absence, there could never be another Superman.
The point, I think, was that the CIA is in demise, but the only part most of us in the press clearly understood was that the president thinks Sean Connery is the best Bond.
This was vintage Chavez: hard-hitting leftist rhetoric and
folksy asides. But even if it's easy to see why his detractors
call Chavez a crackpot, it's hard to dismiss him. Chavez doesn't
blink. He has faced off against a wealthy and rowdy opposition
movement during two-and-a-half years of sporadic street clashes
and crippling strikes. He answered a walkout at the state-run
oil company by firing 18,000 dissenting workers. In April 2002,
he even bounced back from a 48-hour coup when his supporters
flooded the streets and demanded his return. And he's responded
to U.S. criticism with verbal blows to the gut. He once called
President George W. Bush an imbecile, and he regularly refers
to political opponents as "the squalid ones" and a "rancid"
Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, speaks with
reporters during a press conference in April 2003.
"The government of George Bush will be defeated on Sunday," Chavez boomed during the press conference. "It's not a question of whether Chavez goes or stays. It's a question of whether Venezuela remains sovereign or goes back to being an American colony."
Chavez often accuses Washington of backing his political enemies, and in fact, the U.S. government's National Endowment for Democracy has funneled $1 million in the last year to groups linked to the opposition. Washington also publicly welcomed the 2002 coup that briefly unseated Chavez, saying he'd gotten what he deserved. But Chavez may get more political mileage out of such apparent favoritism of the opposition than the opposition does, since it fits perfectly into his incendiary discourse, in which he casts himself as the underdog fighting against a greedy, intervening world power and against Venezuela's wealthy "oligarchs."
The Power of Oil
An oil refinery run by Petroleos de
Venezuela, or PDVSA, Venezuela's state-run oil company.
Chavez has used oil revenues, including $1.7 billion this
year, to finance social programs for the poor.
Analysts say the only reason Chavez can get away with such inflammatory talk is that he's sitting on the world's largest proved oil reserve outside the Middle East. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and provides 13 percent of the oil imported by the United States. With oil prices climbing to 21-year highs in the run-up to the referendum on Chavez's rule, Washington was careful not to incite him.
Oil has also paved the way for the Bolivarian revolution. Chavez has siphoned $1.7 billion dollars from the hulking, state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA as it is known worldwide, to pay for literacy programs, expanded educational programs, mobile clinics and subsidized markets for the country's poor, who make up more than 60 percent of the population. Cuba, meanwhile, has shipped thousands of medics to the country's hardscrabble barrios in return for cut-rate Venezuelan crude. As oil analyst Lawrence Goldstein, president of the New York-based Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, put it, "Oil has allowed Chavez to be all things to all people."
Oil has also fueled a gaping class divide. Throw in the combative
Chavez, and you have a starkly polarized nation. During the
run-up to the referendum, the air was thick with the tension
between the "yes" and the "no" votes. For example, hiking up
Avila Mountain, which looms over Caracas, the day before the
vote, I joked with a couple of journalist friends that the opposition
had failed to produce any fresh faces to counter Chavez's populist
appeal. Just months before, Chavez's foes had turned out an
83-year-old former communist to make stump speeches and improve
the opposition's battered image. A woman hiking past us balked.
An upscale mall in Caracas, one of the many signs of
the divide between rich and poor.
"It must be very entertaining for you," she scolded, in perfect English, "to come here and make fun of something that has cost people years of hard work." She defiantly predicted her side would oust Chavez in the recall.
Farther up the mountain, we stopped to ask directions. A man in a baggy tracksuit asked us where we were from, then blurted out that he would be voting for Chavez because he was poor and felt that Chavez wanted to help him.
President Hugo Chavez registers his thumbprint to prevent
multiple voting in the recall vote against his rule in Caracas,
Venezuela Sunday Aug. 15, 2004. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The next day we fanned out into the sunny streets of Caracas. At the first voting station I visited, a fragile 87-year-old woman named Carmen Cardona linked her arm around mine and asked me to walk her to the registration desk. The National Electoral Council had invented what it considered to be a fraud-proof voting system that included electronic voting machines and two fingerprint checks, one of them digital. But when Cardona pushed her thumb onto the digital pad her fingerprint was too sketchy to register.
"Come, little grandmother," a volunteer said, pressing Cardona's fingers onto the pad again and again. "You have a thin fingerprint. You've worked too much in life."
In the end it took a good 10 minutes for Cardona to get past this single stage. Within hours, the local press was abuzz with the news that people were stalled at fingerprint scans across the country, and the voting lines were growing fast.
But that didn't deter Grisel Marin, the 43-year-old editor of a local culture magazine, who by midmorning had been standing in line for hours but had barely taken 10 steps forward. Marin told me she considered Chavez a member of her family, and she credited him with sharing Venezuela's great oil wealth with the working class. Also, in a city that hosts many a Subway sandwich shop and a scattering of Miami-style malls, she said Chavez was protecting Venezuelans from the corrosive effects of U.S. culture.
"We're not going to turn in our arepa for a McDonald's hamburger," she said, referring to the popular corn-meal tortilla. Asked what she thought of the opposition, she answered, "They come [to] the street [to demonstrate] with manicured nails and necklaces and hairdos. They think we're lepers."
Across town, Augusto Rendon, 51, who lost his job as human resources manager at PDVSA when Chavez purged the company of dissenters, was equally resolute. Wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, he insisted Chavez was the worst president Venezuela had ever had.
"We'll put up with whatever it takes to get rid of this man today," he said, having waited six hours in line already. He switched to English for emphasis: "Whatever it takes."
"He says he's going to end poverty, and people are digging through the trash looking for something to eat," Rendon's wife, Giobanna, added. "It's lie after lie. He's a dictator."
Poverty and crime have, in fact, climbed since Chavez took
office, although the government blames protracted opposition
strikes for draining the economy and fanning discontent. His
detractors, for their part, say Chavez is bypassing fiscal controls
with his latest wave of social programs. The cheap markets and
Cuban medics represent quick fixes, they say. They don't address
One of the many shanty towns surrounding Caracas, the
capital of Venezuela. Approximately 60 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty.
I ran into this in the vast Catia district of western Caracas, where residents drive clunky old cars and where the remains of battered kites hang from criss-crossed telephone wires. A woman there told me she'd taken her son to see a Cuban doctor just down the street, and she was thrilled to have such easy access to a health professional. But two minutes later she showed me the booklet of lottery tickets she was selling to help raise money for medicine for her nephew, a cancer patient. "Visiting a hospital is an unpleasant experience," she said.
Back at the polling booths, the lines were still growing. Voters brought out deck chairs and dominoes and resigned themselves to a wait that would stretch late into the night. Election officials extended polling hours twice, and it wasn't until the early hours of the morning that they announced the results. After a record turnout, an overwhelming 59 percent of voters had opted to keep the president in office until his term expired in 2007; 41 percent had voted to unseat him. Chavez had hit a home run.
Or had he?
Supporters hold up a portrait of Hugo Chavez during a
rally in April 2003.
Just before dawn, Chavez appeared on the balcony of the Miraflores Palace, above the heads of ecstatic supporters, and trumpeted his victory. "The Venezuelan people have spoken, and the voice of the people is the voice of God!" he thundered. But within hours the opposition was crying foul and contesting the outcome. Later in the day, pro-Chavez gunmen shot randomly at a crowd of opposition supporters, killing one and injuring several others.
Former President Jimmy Carter, leading a team of international observers, said it was the largest voter turnout he'd ever seen and endorsed the results based on a highly accurate "quick count" conducted by the Atlanta-based Carter Center and the Organization of American States. Used in elections worldwide, the quick count tallied ballots at select polling sites and confirmed what a tamper-proof electronic voting system had concluded: that Chavez had swept away his opponents yet again, this time in a landslide electoral triumph.
But in this polarized country, neither side is willing to give an inch. And to Chavez's adversaries, Carter was now the enemy. As the Nobel Prize winner entered an elegant Italian restaurant in front of my hotel the next day, drivers who spotted him honked their horns irately. A woman on the sidewalk cupped her hands around her mouth and screeched, "Lies! Lies!"
The opposition was stunned by its defeat and refused to relinquish even the most slender hope of recovery. Opposition leaders continued to contest the results and simultaneously refused to participate in an audit of the outcome. United for so long by their hatred of Chavez, they fell into disarray.
Some 8.5 million of Venezuela's 14 million registered voters
had come out to cast their ballot in the referendum, waiting
in line for hour upon hour, in a show of democratic valor that
impressed even veteran election observers. But the country was
still split, and the jury was still out on whether Chavez would
extend a healing hand toward his political enemies. Analyst
Ana Maria Sanjuan of the Central University of Venezuela noted
that Chavez had left his military uniform -- a symbol of his
defiant ways -- in the closet lately and that he had been meeting
repeatedly with business leaders in a show of political pragmatism.
She was hopeful that he would now build bridges to the opposition.
A young girl holds up a banner during a rally in
support of Chavez, April 2003.
I wondered if Venezuelans were willing to extend a hand to
their brothers, and I put the question to Spic Limo, a 30-year-old
mining engineer, as he waited to vote late Sunday night. "It
will take years and years for this to heal," he said, as he
shuffled forward in the dark.
For the past six years, Ruth Morris has
been based in Bogota, covering the conflict in Colombia for
the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and the BBC,
as well as reporting on other countries in the region, including
Venezuela. Next month she starts work at the Sun-Sentinel
in Florida as an immigration reporter.
what people said about "Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election
Links Relevant to This Article
Endowment for Democracy
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private nonprofit
organization formed in 1983, receives grants from Congress --
including $80 million this year -- to help fund democratic institutions
around the world. Although the NED claims to be nonpartisan,
critics accuse it of funding efforts to destabilize foreign
governments that are opposed to Washington.
The Carter Center, a nonprofit human rights organization formed
in 1982 by former President Jimmy Carter, has monitored elections
in more than 50 countries.
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