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Venezuela: Chávez's 'revolution' seen as different from Castro's

By Phil Gunson, reprinted from The Miami Herald

CARACAS Jun. 13, 2004 - When President Hugo Chávez announced recently that he plans to give military training to civilians to defend his ''revolution,'' he sparked a fresh flurry of charges that he's copying the model of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

But although Chávez is Castro's closest ally -- and once declared that the two countries were headed ''for the same sea of happiness'' -- Chávez supporters and opponents alike say there are important differences between the Venezuelan and Cuban revolutions.

''You can't compare this with the Cuban revolution,'' says Alberto Garrido, author of several books on the Chávez movement, ``No. 1, because it did not come to power by violent means.''

Chávez, a former army officer, did attempt a coup d'état in 1992, before being democratically elected in 1998 and again in 2000. However, he is now criticized for his authoritarian ways and accused of using undemocratic means to try to block a recall referendum.

'Chávez is far more conventionally `democratic' than Fidel,'' argues Richard Gott, a British journalist who wrote a sympathetic study of the Venezuelan president titled, In the Shadow of the Liberator.

''Fidel has never encouraged anyone to follow his model -- apart from the guerrilla movements . . . of the 1960s,'' Gott said. ``All later leftists were warned very specifically not to follow the Cuban road and -- in particular -- not to annoy the United States.''

This latter piece of advice, if given, has frequently been ignored by Chávez, who has called President Bush a ''jerk,'' accused him of plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government and threatened to cut off the oil supply.

Washington has refrained from taking the bait, partly because Venezuela provides about 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, partly to avoid ''creating a second Cuba'' -- the argument that U.S. pressures on Castro in the early 1960s forced him into the arms of the Soviet Union.

''The U.S. won't do what they did in Cuba,'' said Cuban-born Fausto Masó, a Venezuelan journalist and political commentator. ``That's never done Fidel any damage. The only justification Fidel has [for staying in power] is his anti-imperialist discourse.''

Gott also points out that only ``a tiny, rich minority has taken the plane to Miami. Hence there is a much larger, open and vocal opposition to Chávez [inside Venezuela] than there ever was to Fidel.''

As for the ideological content of the two revolutions, Garrido notes that Venezuela's is the first in Latin America that lacks strong working-class support. Chávez's attempts to seize control of labor unions have so far failed.


He points, also, to a crucial difference in economic strategy. Unlike Castro, who seized virtually all private property in the early days of his revolution, Chávez has no problem with private property as such -- although he has tried to eliminate centers of economic power because of their political influence. His economic model favors small businesses and cooperatives.

Like the Cuban leader, Chávez also makes no secret of his desire to spread his ''revolution'' continent-wide. He has been accused of helping leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia and financing like-minded leftists in Ecuador and Bolivia. But so far none of his protégés have come to power.

''Castro is a man who placed atomic bombs and a Russian base right next to the United States,'' said Masó. ``But what example does Chávez represent? A country with oil.''

Opinions differ as to exactly where Chávez is headed.

''If we take the texts of the Chávista [movement] as sacred,'' Masó said, ``we have to conclude he's a dangerous revolutionary seeking to implant a totalitarian system.''

But Masó is among those who believe that, on the contrary, the pragmatist in Chávez will prevail. He described Chávez as 'a calculating politician who never bet on `homeland or death' '' -- Castro's do-or-die slogan.


Garrido, however, believes Chávez foresees an inevitable showdown with U.S. ''imperialism'' and notes that Chávez's plan to give military training to civilians amounts to the creation of 'peoples' militias'' that would resist a U.S. invasion.

Gott agrees. ''Both Chávez and Castro must be following events in Iraq with keen interest. And the formation of a militia for possible deployment in an after-invasion scenario must be high on the list of priorities,'' he said.

Masó, who has observed both men at close quarters, remains a skeptic. ''A politician like Chávez will never take up arms,'' he insists. ``Castro's discourse generated a revolution. Chávez only created a sham.''

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