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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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Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power

Chavez in Person: The President As a Master of Improvisation

Hugo Chavez receives foreign journalists at a press conference in Miraflores.

Hugo Chavez receives foreign journalists at a press conference in Miraflores on April 11, 2003, the anniversary of the failed coup attempt against him. Venezuela's firebrand president is popular with antiglobalization figures in the European press, such as Le Monde Diplomatique's Ignacio Ramonet.
I got to see Hugo Chavez in the flesh for the first time on my first trip back to Venezuela, in the summer of 2002. I'd arranged to meet a journalist friend of mine at the Municipal Theater, in downtown Caracas. At the theater, a distinguished elite group of antiglobalization activists and thinkers had come to support their latest hero, Hugo Chavez. I'd lost my way while walking from the downtown subway station, so I called my friend on his cell phone for directions. He shouted, "Chavez is coming! Hurry up, because once he gets in, they'll close the door!"

I ran as fast as I could along crowded, littered streets, arriving to see the presidential motorcade stop in front of the Municipal Theater. As people cheered, the president walked up the stairs. We followed him in. The symposium was conducted mostly in French. Many in the audience, unable to understand the presentations, began to shuffle. "Down with neoliberalism!" somebody shouted from the gallery. "Long live land reform!" added another. "Long live the Bolivarian Revolution!"

People in the crowd called on Chavez to come down to the stage. "OK, I'll come down if you promise me you'll stay in your seats," the president said. People pressed against him as he walked with the sure stride of a military man. "I'm only going to speak for 15 minutes because I don't want to disturb the schedule," he added.

Two hours later, his enthralled audience was still applauding his barbs -- "Oligarchs, tremble!" -- and impromptu jokes. "Chavez, I love you," screamed a professorial-looking middle-aged woman. "Thank you, my darling, but please, calm down," he responded. Chavez worked the crowd like a small-town mayor, remembering the names of his ministers' offspring and offering everyone a nickname.

Much to my own surprise, I found something stirring in me during the course of his remarks. I was enthralled by the caudillo's energetic promises. Chavez is an enormously effective, and bombastic, public speaker. "Have you seen the people in the demonstrations (against me)?" he asked. "They are all white. This is a revolution of the mulattoes, the Indians... I am the mulatto Chavez."

I applauded his delivery. His capacity to improvise, to quote from memory, to entertain can be extraordinarily moving. The president quoted from Marx, Adam Smith, Mohammed, Jesus Christ and Ortega y Gasset. He also referred, of course, to Simón Bolívar, the Liberator. "If nature is opposed to us, we will fight it, and make it obey," Chavez said, quoting Bolívar. The ovation was thunderous.

The Economic Meltdown: Chavez Survives a Zero-Sum Game

A Chavez critic marches at an opposition rally in Chacao.

A Chavez critic marches at an opposition rally in Chacao, April 11, 2003.
Even though I'd seen Chavez's impressive performance in person, I felt certain that his ouster was only a matter of time. Before I left Venezuela in August of 2002, I dropped in on several mass mobilizations agitating against the president. These events were attended by increasingly large groups of disaffected housewives, professionals, students and even a portion of the new poor. Poverty by then had already swallowed up 70 percent of Venezuelans -- a 15 percent rise since Chavez took office.

That summer I'd seen young, fashionably dressed people holding flags and marching down the highway flanked by working-class vendors. I'd watched middle-class matrons dressed in black and carrying signs that read "No to Cuba" and "Down With Communism" marching beside leftist radicals of Bandera Roja singing obscene slogans against a common enemy: "Hugo -- °golpista, cabrón y comunista!" They seemed like the kind of broad-based opposition destined to prevail against this unlikely president.

Despite this expectation, which was widely shared in Venezuela at the time, mass mobilizations failed to dislodge him. After a few months, the opposition lost patience with protest marches. In late November 2002, a group of dissident military officers declared themselves in "legitimate disobedience," asking their comrades to revolt. That gambit didn't work either. Then in December 2002, business leaders and the largest labor union in the country launched a general strike, calling for an early referendum on Chavez's rule for February. On its third day, the captains who commanded the oil tankers of the Venezuelan Merchant Navy joined the strike, along with the managers of Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company.

The state oil company is to Venezuela what the army is to other Latin American countries. In a country where the economy largely rests on a daily production of 3.1 million barrels, this oil strike was, in effect, an economic putsch. As 18,000 out of 40,000 oil company workers walked off their jobs, production fell to 200,000 barrels a day. Refineries stopped operating. For the first time in history, Venezuelans lined up for gas.

But Chavez fought back skillfully. The government hired foreign technicians and brought in retired workers to operate the facilities. Within just a couple of months, according to the government, 90 percent of oil production had been restored. Gas started flowing again, both in Caracas and to the U.S. market. Business, oil and labor leaders never officially called off the strike, but it fizzled out by early February 2003, leaving in its wake a tired and broken opposition. "Any rational human being would have conceded to such a powerful strike," dissident oil man Edgar Paredes complained. "(Chavez) just hunkered down and let the country fall apart."

The confrontation turned out to be an odd sort of zero-sum game -- in some senses everybody lost, no one gained. The gross domestic product will shrink 29 percent this year because of the loss of $7 billion in oil revenues. More than 30 percent of the country's enterprises have closed since January, causing the loss of 300,000 jobs. As usual, the poor will bear the biggest burden of the political turmoil.

NEXT: A Clash Between Poor and Rich