Frontline World

VENEZUELA, A Critical Turning Point, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Venezuela: A Critical Turning Point
My Country's Rise and Fall
Hugo Chavez Comes to Power
The President's Foes Strike Back
Tapping a Nationalist Vein
Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power
A Clash Between Rich and Poor
Venzuela's Next Chapter
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Venezuela's Next Chapter

The Country's Challenge: How Does a Ruined Nation Hang On to Democracy?

A beggar in Caracas accepts candy from a passerby.

A beggar in Caracas accepts candy from a passerby. He rests against a wall emblazoned with graffitti that states: "Chavez until year 2021." (AP/Wide World Photos)
Chavez expects the poor to support him in a referendum, which can take place after August 19, 2003, the midpoint in his current six-year term. The opposition, although confident of its ability to force the president into a referendum, remains divided about the desired outcome. Its leaders -- Enrique Mendoza, governor of Miranda state; Henrique Salas Romer, who ran against Chavez in 1998; and Juan Fernandez, the oilman who led the strike -- all aspire to become president. None of them yet measure up to Chavez in the polls, though. "The right is living what the left experienced in the 1960s and the 1970s," leftist politician Jesus Angel Paz Galarraga told me. "But we found Chavez. Now the opposition must find their man."

Activists on both sides agree on one piece of good news in an otherwise bleak tableau: The struggle over Venezuela's future, it appears, will play out legally through traditional electoral channels rather than through extra-legal grabs for power and pitched battles in the street. In the past two years alone, more than 2 million people have registered to vote, 1.4 million of them over the age of 25. (The latter have apparently never before felt that anything vital was at stake in national elections.)

Perhaps this is a sign that Venezuelans have moved past their fixation on Chavez, as if his fate alone will determine theirs. "The real revolution is not Chavez, but what will come after him," Miguel Enrique Orteroexplained to me in an interview last spring. Ortero, the editor of El Nacional, an important Caracas daily newspaper, supported both the coup attempt against Chavez and the subsequent long oil strike. Now he braces for hard times ahead. Even he, though, believes that Venezuelan politics have been changed forever -- and, in some ways, for the better. "Venezuelans didn't used to care about how they were governed. Now they'll be watchful that the government does what they want it to do," Ortero told me.

Toward the end of my most recent trip to Venezuela, I walked to Miraflores Palace along the same route the opposition crowds had planned to follow in their aborted effort to storm the presidential palace the year before. It was the anniversary of the confrontation that cost 19 lives and sparked Chavez's brief removal from office. I arrived just in time for President Hugo Chavez's press conference with international journalists, held to celebrate the anniversary of his political survival.
Caracas Valley and Mount Avila

Picture of the Caracas Valley and Mount Avila, taken from Valle Arriba -- one of Caracas's wealthiest neighborhoods -- at dusk, April 2003. In colonial times, Mount Avila shielded Spanish Caracas from the French and English pirates who roamed the Caribbean. Now it stands as the symbol of Bolívar's hometown and is a green respite for a modern city of 5 million.

In the luxurious Salon Ayacucho, I had a second chance to observe the president of my country up close. Chavez arrived, smiling and buoyant. He talked for hours, telling rather circular stories with bold punch lines. He seemed, on this second encounter, diminished somehow, sitting behind a polished table and holding forth as if he had all the time in the world, as if his country weren't in the midst of an economic catastrophe with real consequences for real people.

After a few hours, most of the accredited reporters drifted away. The loss of audience didn't seem to faze Chavez. He talked on, announcing defiantly that he's sure to survive any referendum. "Let the squalid ones have their referendum," he said forcefully. "We will beat them once more. We have beat them in six elections, and we will win the seventh."

Odds are that Chavez will prevail at the ballot box if a referendum qualifies, pollsters say. Now the formerly quiescent middle class is fully awakened, and so are the poor. The coming fight within and between classes will reveal whether traditional democratic forms that have endured for nearly 50 years are up to the task of helping to reinvent Venezuela. In the midst of crushing economic and political pressures, this formerly rich country faces a stiff challenge -- how to withstand such pressures while creating more democratic political processes.

As I left the palace, I recollected something Simón Bolívar said. Making a revolution in South America, he argued, was "like plowing the sea." When Bolívar freed South America from Spain in 1824, he destroyed an ancient, corrupt regime. He also unleashed a process that he couldn't control. Bolívar ultimately found himself exiled by his own lieutenants -- sent away, thoroughly humiliated, from the continent he'd freed. He died on that voyage into exile. Hugo Chavez's revolution, in a similar way, may have unleashed forces far more potent than anything he -- or his supporters and detractors -- have yet imagined.

Angel Gonzalez was Associate Producer for the FRONTLINE/World television segment, "A Nation on Edge" which aired in June 2003. Watch streaming video of the story, explore related links, access facts, read interviews with dueling Venezuelan oil executives, or explore Hugo Chavez's neighborhood at the "Nation on Edge" Web site.