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In April 2003, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Juan Forero
traveled to Venezuela for the first anniversary of the fleeting
but violent three-day overthrow of President Hugo Chavez and
his breathtaking return to power. Forero was looking to see
where the deeply divided country is headed and to figure out
how Venezuela, once stable and rich, has ended up on the edge
of economic and political chaos.
Forero starts his quest in Simón Bolívar Plaza in downtown Caracas, the capital, where for the last year Chavistas (supporters of President Chavez) have gathered regularly to support the man they feel speaks up for Venezuela's poor. "He orients us," one man says, "shows us what was covered up. We were blindfolded before." Another woman tells Forero that Chavez is more important than God because he is the hope of the people.
Then, surprisingly, a woman steps forward and asks if she can offer a dissenting opinion, saying she is disenchanted with Chavez and will not vote for him again. The crowd does not take well to her request and grows progressively angrier, chanting Chavez's name, until Forero pulls the frightened woman into a nearby government building. Officials whisk her away and tell Forero that he shouldn't be covering politics, suggesting instead that he report on how good the tourism is in Venezuela.
Such a story though, notes Forero, would be hard to do. Tourism is collapsing. The economy in Venezuela is in a freefall, predicted to decline 20 percent this year alone. And many in this deeply split country blame its impulsive, charismatic president. Forero meets with Julio Borges, a critic of Chavez. He says there has been an astonishing social shift in the last 20 years, pointing out that in 1983, the country was 75 percent middle class and 25 percent in poverty. Now these numbers are reversed.
This change, Borges says, made Chavez's rise to power predictable, if not inevitable. "Chavez is a symptom of the sickness that Venezuela has ... not the illness itself," Borges explains. The illness he's referring to is Venezuela's over-reliance on cheap and abundant oil. Indeed, it's costing Forero all of $2.50 to fill the tank of his rental car.
With oil reserves that rival some of the largest producers in the Middle East, Venezuela is sitting on a virtual gold mine. It's the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, but oil money has not been an economic cure-all. The population has outgrown the rise in oil revenues, and successive governments have squandered oil riches and stolen public funds. The few who consistently profit are the very rich, who are staunchly opposed to Chavez. These people are a driving force in an opposition movement made up largely of middle-class Venezuelans, who are increasingly anxious about the country's economic nosedive.
This movement has its own square, across from the Chavistas. Forero visits this place during the daily antigovernment rally and speaks with General Gonzalez Gonzalez, one of the movement's heroes. Gonzalez points to Chavez's close relationship with Fidel Castro: "Chavez has Cubanized, or is trying to Cubanize, Venezuela. He's created an image of differences and divisions among the population, making lower-class people believe that what they don't have was taken away from them by the upper classes."
As people gather around Gonzalez for his autograph, Forero notes that it does says something about Venezuela's unusual brand of democracy that this man who has worked hard to overthrow Chavez is not in prison, but free to speak out and being treated like a celebrity.
Last year, Gonzalez played an important role in what has become the defining event in Venezuela's political crisis. Half a million people took to the streets in opposition to Chavez, but the day ended in violence, as shots rang out from a bridge and 19 people were killed. Inside the presidential palace, a brief coup took place, and an opposition leader was installed with Washington, D.C.'s implicit support. But three days later, Chavez supporters took back the streets and the palace, and the president was returned to power.
Both the Chavistas and the opposition lay claim to the 19 victims as martyrs for their cause. A year later not a single shooter has been prosecuted, including whoever killed Jorge Tortoza, a newspaper photographer who was covering the violent event. Forero meets with Tortoza's brother William on the very spot where the shooting occurred. The government hasn't helped solve the case, Tortoza says, but then again neither has the opposition. He has little hope of ever getting answers.
Forero next goes to the mansion of Miguel Otero, the wealthy publisher of a large newspaper. Otero admits that his paper is biased and openly criticizes the president. "We have to get rid of Chavez," he tells Forero. "Chavez is leading the country to disaster."
If there's one thing that both sides agree on it's that Chavez has succeeded in making people political. As Otero puts it, "He has politicized people so much that anybody who comes to power after Chavez will be obliged to talk to people every day, to make decisions in terms of what people want. He won't be able to govern like people before Chavez. That's a big revolution."
On the day of the actual anniversary of the coup d'Čtat, Forero heads to the poor barrios surrounding downtown Caracas, where he finds no lack of Chavez supporters. Posters and flags are everywhere. Women explain to Forero that because of Chavez, they will be able to buy homes, that children can now go to school for a full day, that Chavez has taught them what democracy is. But poverty, Forero notes, has increased by 10 percent while Chavez has been in office.
Chavez himself chooses to hold a press conference to mark the anniversary. And in the usual style of the long-winded leader, it goes on for hours. When Forero finally gets a chance to address the president, he asks about the investigation into Tortoza's death. He gets a circuitous response and no concrete answer. After the press conference, Forero succeeds in getting a few moments of face time with Chavez, but again the president offers nothing of substance. "He has made a lot of promises, and there is a lot expected of him," Forero notes. "But at the same time, it is hard to pin down the man -- or his accomplishments."
That same evening the opposition holds their own rally, every bit as big as the earlier Chavez rally. The anti-Chavez people use the same film clip of Tortoza's shooting death that the pro-Chavez rally used earlier. It underscores for Forero that both sides are manipulating the victims for political gain.
The opposition has been trying everything possible to get rid of Chavez, and he may have offered them their last best chance. They are now considering accepting an offer they dismissed earlier this year, for a popular referendum on Chavez's rule. In this country, split so markedly right down the middle, the results are impossible to predict. "For now, polls in Venezuela are running against Chavez," says Forero, "but no one here is counting him out."
Graduate School Of Journalism