I grew up in Caracas in the 1980s thinking that Venezuela was the richest country in the world. "Oil, iron, gold, aluminum" was the mantra that elementary schoolchildren recited in patriotic incantation. We learned the glorious history of Simón Bolívar, who liberated much of the South American continent from Spain in 1824. We enjoyed our status as beneficiaries of an extended economic boom fueled by the rising price of oil. We spent our summers taking trips to Disney World. And our country's politics seemed similarly blessed. We were Latin America's most stable democracy, a rebuke not only to Communist rulers in Cuba but also to right-wing authoritarian regimes in the rest of South America.
Middle-class Venezuelans like me, who have been outside our country through college and graduate school years, have difficulty reconciling the country we encounter now with the country we left behind. When I was a child, less than 25 percent of the population lived in poverty. Walk through the looking glass: Today 75 percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. When I was growing up, a per capita income of $7,401 gave us purchasing power equal to that of people in Singapore or Italy. But now the per capita GDP has fallen by more than half, below $3,000. First World pretensions dressed up in fine French shirts have been replaced by fiery demagoguery, violent politics and an uncertain future in the form of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution led by President Hugo Chavez.
Much of the attention paid by U.S. media to this reversal of fortune swirls around the political career of Chavez, the charismatic populist who was elected president in 1998. He represents a new, more indigenous face for Venezuela. Chavez survived a coup attempt in 2002 and is now embroiled in a battle to protect his presidency from an effort to topple him via legal means. He faces a possible referendum on his rule, which could be called after August 19, 2003.
But although Chavez stands at the center of my country's political life, at least for a little while longer, he's only part of the country's story. Chavez is actually a stand-in, in a sense, for a larger, deeper struggle between competing forces. His Bolivarian Revolution poses a bedeviling question: Can a formerly rich, currently poor country that has an established, stable democratic government redefine itself in a way that brings Venezuelans more democracy -- rather than less?
On two trips back to Venezuela -- the first in the summer of 2002 and the second in the spring of 2003 -- I explored that question. I tried to determine what may be in store for the country after Chavez and how the current political battle may shape (or squelch) a democracy nearly 47 years old.