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The Hugo Chavez Show

Teodoro Petkoff

Petkoff

He was a minister in the former government of Venezuela. Once a Communist, he's now the editor of a left-wing newspaper, Tal Cual, and a leading center-left critic of Chávez. This is a translated and edited transcript of an interview conducted in Spanish on Feb. 26, 2008.

“There is the tragedy of the charismatic leader, who maintains his power based on the trust of the people, as long as they believe he's capable of producing miracles.”

What is the TV program Aló Presidente, and how does one see it?

Aló Presidente is a variety show. In fact, it is advertised on TV using slogans typical of variety shows. It is also extremely long: It can run up to seven hours sometimes, although ordinarily it lasts four or five. In this program, the president establishes the party line and gives instructions to his political adherents. And of course he responds to his opponents, creates controversy and scolds his ministers. He talks about what has happened in the world, the solar system and in outer space. But mainly the program is geared toward his followers, and he uses it to give them instructions.

... Do people have to watch it?

The program is not all that popular. It's mainly watched by politicians on both sides: those who are with the government and those against it. But I don't think the public in general watches it, regardless of their political inclinations. Of course, the next day, the media has to talk about the program, because their job is to discuss what the president said. This gives the program a longer reach. It's a primary source for politicians and journalists to find out about the president's plans.

Is that the only way people can learn what Chávez is planning?

... Besides Aló Presidente, there is really no other way to find out what he thinks, since he doesn't give interviews to the national press, only to the international press. ... And Chávez really does mean what he says, whether you agree with him or not. I don't agree with him most of the time, but he is dead serious, and one should take him at his word. ...

What is your impression of the [1992] "Por ahora" ["For now"] speech?

That speech represented one of Chávez's more lucid political moments, because he admitted what many of his comrades in arms refused to own up to: that they had been defeated. And it is very important for a politician to be able to admit his defeat. Not only did he admit it, he also created a path toward the future. ...

What caused the country to become so fascinated with that speech?

One needs to first understand the historical context in which the speech was given. The [Carlos Andrés] Pérez administration had done everything to discredit itself.

Editor's note: Pérez served two terms as president, first from 1974 to 1979, and then from 1989 to 1993.

It had failed to live up to the country's expectations, expectations that had been unrealistic. In any case, the Pérez administration had become weak and exhibited clear signs of corruption. The coup took the country by surprise. Nobody expected it. At first, the reaction of the Venezuelan people was to reject the attempted overthrow of the government because the idea of democracy is deeply rooted.

But a few hours afterward, and precisely because it was clear that it represented an insurrection against that corrupt government, the coup started to generate a strange reaction among Venezuelans: a feeling of sympathy for the participants in the coup. ... Chávez took responsibility at once, admitted his defeat and called on his comrades to lay down their arms, to stop the bloodshed. And in addition, he set a path for the future. He said: "We are defeated for now, but there will be new battles." Those words fell as rain on dry soil. ...

How did he manage to win the elections of '98?

He won because the country was ready for what Chávez had become, the "perfect outsider." The country was fed up with the two big parties, Democratic Action and COPEI [Social Christian Party of Venezuela]. The people put up with them until '98 ... because they saw no alternative. But when Hugo Chávez emerged as a candidate, displaying the courage that is always attributed to him, the courage of all men of action -- he had, after all, been the leader of two bloody attempted coups and had risked his life by using very strong rhetoric against both of the parties -- he easily captured the popular sentiment of the times in a country that was frustrated and disappointed, a country that had been subjected to 15 years of a relentless media campaign against politicians.

The TV media would later suffer the consequences of their anti-politics campaign. Some stations were attacked, even closed down by that emblem of anti-politics, Hugo Chávez. Many of them had dedicated themselves for 15 years to destroying the reputations of the political parties, of politicians and political concepts as a whole. They thought of Chávez as an answer to this doctrine. But they never imagined that Hugo Chávez would turn against them. ...

... Chávez got to the presidency by riding a wave of media acclaim. All the media outlets in Venezuela supported him. They gave him full pages of propaganda in the press and hours of TV exposure. The big economic powers and the owners of the major media outlets thought that Chávez would help them get rid of Democratic Action and COPEI. They also thought that they could control him once he got into power. More than one of those media owners, who are a very arrogant bunch, used to say, "We appoint and remove presidents."

Including the owner of RCTV [Radio Caracas Televisión Internacional]?

Yes, ... they were part of it. Of course, I was against the closure of RCTV by Chávez, but I also remember the role they played in the campaign against politicians in general, against the concept of political parties and against individual politicians, a campaign in which we politicians had been presented as being so much garbage, reduced to a kind of underclass for 15 years, from 1983 until 1998, the year that Chávez's campaign started.

Why did the media change its attitude?

They didn't change. They backed Chávez because they thought he was the answer to their doctrine against politicians. Chávez represented the embodiment of their anti-political sentiment. He hadn't emerged from one of the big parties, nor was he seen as part of the system. He was the "perfect outsider." In the minds of the media, Chávez was a military man who would put the country in order and forever oust Democratic Action and the COPEI from all their positions in government, which he did.

But what they didn't imagine, these sorcerer's apprentices who opened up the newspapers, the TV and radio stations to Chávez, was that Chávez could not be bribed. ...

What are your thoughts on the [April 2, 2002] coup against Chávez?

The same as I said publicly that evening. I was the only person, in reality, who came out to confront the coup -- the day it happened -- on a TV program at 6:00 that afternoon. I was against it because a group of irresponsible people had subverted the popular demonstrations as leverage to instigate a coup. I was in sympathy with the demonstrations, but not with the coup, nor the overthrow of the president, much less via military means.

I was even less in agreement with the creation of a dreadful government, a government which did not represent a solution to any problem, but was rather motivated by the idea of political and social revenge.

You are referring to the government of [Pedro] Carmona [Estanga, who was named president for two days following the coup]?

Yes, of course.

Did you talk with Chávez again?

Yes. Four or five days after the coup against him, he called me to meet with him at Miraflores [Palace]. We spoke for several hours, and I told him about the mistakes he had made which had left him open to a coup.

And what did Chávez say?

At the time he was very regretful. He explained to me the reasons he had done various things. He seemed willing to rectify some of his past errors. In fact he did try, although many among the opposition would say otherwise, because when you ask them, "Do you remember what Chávez did after the coup?," they answer that he kept telling the same lies as always.

But they forget several things: first, that he rehired the people he had fired from PDVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.] and appointed as its new director Alí Rodríguez to negotiate a settlement with them. Second, he promised that he would no longer wear his officer's uniform. This was in order to comply with military rules, since he was no longer a member of the armed forces. Third, he created a commission for dialogue. And what was the opposition's answer to these changes? One of the opposition leaders said, "The Chávez government is illegitimate, and there is nothing to talk about."

What do I think would have happened if there had been communication between Chávez, who'd been backed into a corner, and a country that he had attacked brutally? I don't know. But at least we wouldn't have had a second attempted coup later that same year, though this was more of a clown show than an actual coup. ...

The third attempted coup was associated with the oil strike. It was generally held that no government in Venezuela could possibly allow an oil strike to go on for longer than three days because such an emergency would cause the armed forces [to] intervene. But that did not happen. ...

At the end, Chávez prevailed, as he always did?

Yes, of course. Chávez won in the April coup, though he could hardly have imagined he would be returned to power in only 48 hours. The second coup essentially defeated itself. The coup associated with the oil strike held out for 62 days before it petered out.

How was Chávez able to sustain himself through these challenges?

At that time he still had a very strong popular base of support. He was also in control of the armed forces.

Did Chávez change in response to these attempts to oust him?

Yes, he changed for the worse.

In what ways?

The authoritarian tendencies already in his temperament became stronger. The government became more autocratic as Chávez took further power into his hands. We now have all the power concentrated in one individual. And the militaristic features of the government [became stronger]. Political polarization, induced by his aggressive and intolerant rhetoric, has become tragic, from my point of view. This is now a desperately divided and polarized country.

How do you view the failure of the reform?

Nine years had passed, and the government was not only autocratic, authoritarian and militaristic, but also corrupt and inefficient. All this has made many of those who trusted and loved Chávez -- some do still love him -- regard him with increased skepticism, more critically, and with less than unconditional support.

There is the tragedy of the charismatic leader, a leader who maintains his power based on the trust of the people as long as they believe he is capable of producing miracles. When people start to realize that the miracles are not forthcoming, they start to look at their charismatic leader with increased suspicion. And if, on top of this, the leader proposes changing the constitution in ways the country decides it does not like, because it looks too much like the communist regimes, then the charismatic leader loses his aura. ...

Isn't this kind of defeat a disaster for a person like Chávez?

... Chávez transforms any electoral process into a plebiscite in which one votes for or against him, so the failure of the reform became his failure. All his slogans were based on the idea that Chávez equaled the reform and the reform equaled Chávez. Therefore, if the reform was defeated, he was defeated.

I think it would be wrong, though, to conclude that all the people who voted against him would never be willing to vote for him again. They were in disagreement with the reform, but not with him. ...

The power structures perceived that Chávez lost the referendum, but also, as a result of his loss, he has been stamped with an expiration date, which is not 2021 or 2030 as he used to like to say, but rather 2012, when the next presidential elections are held. The power structures which have created their fortune in his shadow begin to wonder what their position will be when he exits. Now everybody starts to think it's every man for himself.

What is Chávez doing about this?

He is trying to keep this phenomenon from developing. But he is acting very clumsily, very erratically. His first reaction was to recognize that there are indeed problems in the country: scarcity, inflation, crime. In other words, he is like a character who suddenly landed in Venezuela and nine years later discovers that people are going through hard times, that basic staples are hard to come by, that we have the highest inflation rate on the continent and a soaring crime rate. So his first reaction was to say, "Let's take care of this." But this lasted only a short time. ...

Why is it so difficult to address the real problems -- crime, garbage in the streets -- particularly since money exists to deal with these things?

That's what we Venezuelans all wonder. There is one answer: The government is very inefficient. We have to remember that Chávez did not come to power as head of a political party with years of tradition underpinning it, or with a capable and sufficiently educated leadership behind him, one which had seriously considered the problems of the country. Instead, Chávez arrived as the head of an amorphous mass, with bits taken from here and there: the right, the left, the civil society and the military.

So, of course, when the entirety of the traditional power structure was thrown away, what substituted for it were improvised teams made up of people ill prepared to manage. And these are the results. At the beginning, Chávez could unload all the blame for his failures on his ministers. And in public opinion surveys, it was clear that while Chávez had a high approval rate -- 60 percent of the people trusted the president -- the government itself fared poorly. People would say that the economic policies and the fight against crime were very inefficient.

Now, more recent polls indicate that people are blaming Chávez as much as the government. People are not stupid. At the beginning they used to think, "Our president is concerned about our problems, but these useless ministers refuse to do their jobs." And now people are saying: "Well, it's fine that the president scolds the ministers on television and shows that they are incompetent. But who appointed the ministers? Who gave them their responsibilities?" And they are coming to the conclusion that if our president made mistakes in choosing his team, then the responsibility for the problem ultimately rests on him.

So Chávez's answer is to change the ministers?

Yes, he has made 118 ministerial changes in nine years.

This seems a very inefficient way to operate.

Absolutely. It's impossible to be efficient. As soon as a minister finds out where the office bathroom is, he is removed. You cannot have any kind of policy continuity this way. ... He appoints someone, and as soon as he sees that this person doesn't measure up, out they go. But the problem is that they never get the chance to demonstrate whether they are competent or not, because they are changed too quickly. Chávez is very intolerant. And Chávez fires them right on television, in a very inconsiderate way. There are ministers that have learned they have lost their jobs by watching Aló Presidente. That's no way to treat people. ...

The ministers must be afraid when they attend an Aló Presidente broadcast.

Of course. It's a dreadful spectacle, shameful and pathetic. Every Sunday, Chávez has, seated in front of him for six or seven or even eight hours, a group of ministers who have no other mission than to laugh at his jokes and applaud him. I see old friends of mine, friends from the left, who used to be irreverent, scrappy guys. They now sit like perfect idiots for eight hours, laughing at the president's jokes. Sometimes when they're not aware of it, the camera catches them yawning or looking annoyed. ...

Chávez is very inconsiderate of his allies. Just a few days ago, he did something truly humiliating to the publisher of últimas Noticias, the largest circulation newspaper in Venezuela, which is very popular among common people. The paper's publisher, Eleazar Díaz Rangel, is an old friend of Chávez's, who has supported Chávez unfailingly for the past nine years. But then the newspaper ran a headline, "Our health system is in a coma," echoing the concerns of the Ministry of Health. Well, on the next Aló Presidente, Chávez scolded Rangel, the director of the paper, for a full 50 minutes, and also lambasted the family which owns the newspaper. Chávez pretended to be giving them lessons in ethics. ...

So in Venezuela, we find a paradox: Only the people who actively oppose Chávez can exercise their freedom of expression. These are the ones who are not afraid of Chávez, nor of his tantrums. Journalists who speak out against Chávez are under constant attack by the president and risk being put on trial, but none of his political allies dare murmur the slightest criticism. That is why the move against Rangel is so important. It signals that if Chávez would do this to a friend, an ally and the publisher of the most widely read paper in Venezuela, he is capable of doing it to anyone. ...

And was Eleazar Díaz Rangel correct about the problems within the health system?

Yes, the health system in Venezuela is in a coma. A few days after publicly excoriating Rangel for raising the subject, Chávez implicitly recognized the gravity of the situation by announcing on TV his intention to dedicate $1 from every barrel of oil sold to the health care system.

So you think that Chávez ought to count to 10 before responding?

He ought to, but he's very impulsive. He's dominated by his tongue, which is bigger than he is. He shoots his mouth off and then thinks better of it. One day he said, "We are going to leave the International Monetary Fund!" Someone, and I don't know where that person found the courage, said -- and it must have been in a voice high-pitched with fear -- "Look, Mr. President, if we leave the IMF, the $30 billion we owe will be due the next day. We'll have to pay the public debt with dollars we don't have." Chávez never broached the subject again.

Another time, because of the lawsuit against Exxon, Chávez said, "We are not going to sell any more oil to the gringos." Two days later, the vice minister of mining and energy, Bernard Mommer, had the guts to say publicly, "Well, that's not such a good idea, because the gringos lose, but we lose even more." And Chávez, later on, said: "I was just joking. Of course we're going to continue selling oil to them."

So he is very impulsive and in some areas very ignorant. He talks about things he has no idea about and puts his foot in his mouth over and over again. ...

What has he done in 10 years for the poor? What has he done for the country?

I believe that history will have to recognize that Chávez brought the issue of poverty onto center stage. It's the most important issue for Venezuela. In the 20 years prior to Chávez, we experienced a terrible process of impoverishment for a large section of the population. Up to 60 percent of Venezuelans were considered poor. And the issue had disappeared from the radar of the big political parties for half a century.

Chávez acknowledged the pain of an impoverished country and put it front and center for all to see. Thanks to that, in any kind of political, cultural or business discourse, the issue of poverty and the fight against it have become essential. So history will show that Chávez restored a sense of identity, of belonging, a sense that they mattered, to the most economically disadvantaged sectors of Venezuelan society. "We are part of the government's agenda," they could say. "We count." Chávez exhorted the people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum to an accelerated process of empowerment.

At the same time, history will have to recognize that their empowerment led them to discover that the government was really bad, and from now on they would have to be constantly in the streets, voicing their demands. These people, with more sense of self-esteem and newly emboldened identity, have been frustrated in their expectations. They feel that the government is not living up to its promises. In the end, the big theme of poverty ... continues to be a problem, just as in the past. ...

In spite of the [Bolivarian] missions, the cooperatives?

Precisely, in spite of them. After four years, one notices the decay, the corruption, the squandering of money. And even though Chávez says he wants the missions to work more effectively, the fact is they continue to get worse. For example, the operation of one of the most well-regarded social programs, Barrio Adentro -- "In the Heart of the Community" -- has greatly deteriorated. The Cubans have withdrawn 5,000 doctors from it, which reduces the medical personnel drastically. In addition, the government planned to build 8,000 modular units to provide housing for the doctors in the neighborhoods, but only 1,500 of these units were built, and half of them are already falling apart.

There is a lot of frustration. People have received some financial assistance, but what they really want is a job. And that is where the government fails. The public policies don't get to the root of the problem. Here, a mission is a social program equivalent to food stamps or the programs of the New Deal. But the success of the New Deal was not based on giving charity to people without jobs. It worked because it created employment -- real, permanent, well-paying jobs.

Is the problem one of his too-rigid ideology, or is it inefficiency on Chávez's part?

The answer is both. His ideology forces him to maintain a state of permanent aggression toward the private sector. In reality, this hostility has not eliminated private enterprise, but rather surrounded it with so many regulations that its activity has become very constrained. In fact, the private sector, instead of functioning as a mechanism for investment and development, is reduced to bare survival.

Even in the period of the oil bonanza, the private sector only just limped along. At the same time, Chávez has tried to create new forms of social and economic organization: cooperatives, collectively owned companies. But these have a very strong, inbuilt ideological slant. The idea of cooperativism is not bad; it's good to develop them, and Chávez stimulated their development. Suddenly, though, he discovered that cooperatives include elements of private ownership, so he discarded them.

He discarded everything?

Yes, everything. There are no more cooperative programs, because they don't agree with Chávez's ideology.

No more cooperative missions?

No new ones. A few still survive. But of the 180,000 cooperatives that once existed, many thousands have disappeared. ... The ones that survive do so precariously. On the other hand, Chávez has nationalized the telephone company and the Caracas electric utility. He does these things from a purely ideological perspective. He wants the state to be the owner of all the strategic sectors. ...

I am very interested in the housing situation. Why is there a shortage of homes here?

Well, this is about incompetence. Money has been available. Institutions in charge of building housing do exist, as do private companies capable of doing the building. But the government, for ideological reasons, has for many years disassociated itself from the private sector. So in nine years, the government has built 260,000 homes, which is less than the amount built during a two-year period by any previous government.

Is that because Chávez has no interest in housing?

No, Chávez is very much concerned. And he has criticized and fired housing ministers live on Aló Presidente. Housing was one of Chávez's central promises: "We are going to build millions of homes, but not like the matchbox houses built by the Fourth Republic. These will be spacious and dignified." But the homes that Chávez built turned out to be matchboxes, too, just like the ones he'd disparaged, and totally insufficient in number besides. This is not one of his worst failures, but it is one of the few he admits. He has said, "When it comes to housing, we give ourselves an F."

That we should have such a situation is incomprehensible. A sensible government would ally itself with the private sector. It would hire private companies and direct them to build houses for which the government would pay. ...

Chávez's obsession with the "Empire" -- is it real?

During the first five years of his government, he didn't concern himself with the Empire at all; it didn't exist for him. In fact, Chávez didn't at the time say anything about the U.S. involvement in the coup. But in recent years, he's reminded us at every opportunity that the Empire tried to overthrow him, because in truth, the Empire had been caught red-handed in the coup.

Is that so?

Yes, of course. Once a meddler, always a meddler. Until a few years ago, the gringos were accustomed to overthrowing Latin Americans' governments whenever it suited them. But since the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore, it's no longer so urgent to get rid of Latin American governments the State Department isn't crazy about. Nevertheless, when they saw the opportunity to knock Chávez out of the box, they got involved in the conspiracy. But Chávez swept the Empire's involvement in the coup under the rug. He called the U.S. ambassador up and said to him, "Look, here's the evidence." This was more or less public knowledge, but Chávez covered it up. Years later, around 2005, Chávez incorporated the theme of the Empire into his rhetoric. I think there were ideological reasons for this. He has become, over time, more radical in his exercise of government, and in the process he has acquired values one could call Marxist-Leninist.

It is possible that his close contact with Fidel [Castro] has encouraged him to incorporate the theme of the Empire into his rhetoric. But he has done this in a clumsy, infantile, and even ridiculous way, because he makes the Empire and its allies responsible for anything negative that happens in Venezuela.

A few days ago, a number of dead cows appeared on the beach at a tourist resort. The mayor of the town said that this was a conspiracy on the part of the Empire to discredit the Venezuelan tourist industry. What really happened was that a boat carrying livestock sank in one of the Venezuelan ports, and some of the cows floated along the coast and eventually washed ashore. So the attitude of the government becomes ridiculous. If this story were fiction, it would be very funny. But it's true, and therefore almost tragic. ...

People, however, are not idiots, and they are beginning to realize that these are empty words. How can you persuade people to believe that scarcity, inflation and crime are all the work of the Empire? ...

[How meaningful is this talk]?

... This rhetoric is meaningful in Cuba, which for 40 years resisted the Empire and its blockade. But in Venezuela, this doesn't wash. [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva], the president of Brazil, said to Chávez, "OK, I'll believe your anti-imperialist rhetoric when you stop selling oil to the United States." Chávez rails against the Empire to which every day we sell millions of barrels of oil. Sixty percent of our imports come from the U.S. Venezuelan players star on American baseball teams. We watch American films. So clearly, we have all sorts of relationships with the United States on multiple levels.

If one wanted to get seriously anti-U.S. imperialist -- although this would be a really dumb move -- then one would have to ban American movies, stop selling oil to the U.S., and stop importing from them, too. If you really meant it, you would do something crazy like that, no?

Fortunately this is only rhetoric. I say "fortunately" because if we actually made any of these moves against the U.S., we'd end up ruined. ...

How do you see the end of Chávez's saga playing out?

Well, I hope we will defeat him in the next elections; also that in this year's regional elections the opposition wins some important offices, key governorships and mayoralties. And I'm hoping the opposition will win a good number of seats in the parliamentary elections coming up in 2010, so, hopefully, the opposition will increase its strength and that the government will continue to grow weaker. That way we could defeat Chávez overwhelmingly in the elections in 2012. ...

Does the opposition have another agenda besides getting rid of Chávez?

We are living through a third stage in the evolution of the opposition. In the first stage, the opposition attempted to overthrow Chávez through a coup. This stage lasted from 1999 until the end of the oil strike [in 2003]. The second stage was when the political parties regained their capacities for action and claimed electoral fraud. From then on, they lost governorships, mayoralties and seats in the parliament.

Now we have arrived at a new stage, and the opposition leadership is constituted by more sensible people who share a greater commitment to democracy. They are not obsessed with getting rid of Chávez; rather, they are concerned with winning battles within the Chávez government. They see his government as being legitimate until 2012. Today, only a small minority within the opposition wants to get rid of Chávez through a coup, although he insists that the opposition as a whole is plotting his overthrow.

From my point of view, this is another demonstration of Chávez's clumsiness: not knowing how to distinguish between different groups within the opposition. I believe he should try to establish a relationship with its more democratic factions. In that way he could isolate the coup supporters. Perhaps he thinks it is more advantageous to put everyone into the same bag and to continue promoting among his followers the idea that the opposition is composed of ultra-rightists, coup-plotters and lackeys of imperialism.

I think this is the wrong approach. But Chávez is old enough to know what he's doing.

posted november 19, 2008

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