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If Venezuelan Politics were an Olympic Sport...

By Alexandra Beech,

The international community is a fickle creature. For the past two years, it has kept its eyes focused on Venezuela, much like it is focused on the Olympics now. On the one side of Venezuela’s fight is Chavez, who promised to vindicate the poor and forge a new identity for Venezuela - he even changed the country’s name. On the other side is a heterogeneous opposition, comprised of political parties, business chambers, workers unions, and civic organizations.

“I don’t understand why people are shocked by what he’s done”, my mother says. “The man carried pictures of the Che Guevara. What did they think they were going to get?”

That is the most baffling question still.

Chavez never hid his motives or intention for Venezuela. Anyone interested in his youth would have learned that as a teenager, he was highly influenced by the Communist Party of Venezuela, Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara, Jose Marti, Herbert Marcusse and many others.

His obsession with Simon Bolivar may have caught international attention, but the revolution which drew his curiosity was more deeply shaped by the ideals of Lev Davidovich Bronstein, otherwise known as Trotsky, than any Creole from a wealthy, Latin American family.

Chavez enrolled at the Military Academy in 1969. He has said that he enrolled in the Academy because “we were very poor and my father couldn’t finance my studies,” though according to another story, he enrolled to play baseball. Influential journalist Manuel Felipe Sierra says that before enrolling, Chavez had already been influenced by a local Communist Party and guerrilla leaders who believed that the path to power for poor youths was paved through the military.

A year before graduating from the Military Academy in 1975, Chavez traveled to Peru where he met General Velazco Alvarado, who led a military dictatorship from 1968 to 1973. Chavez was highly impressed by the leftist leader who fused a socialist revolution with military discipline, and who gave the soldier the book titled, “La Revolución Nacional Peruana.”

In 1975, Chavez would meet another influential dictator, General Omar Torrijos, who had taken part in the coup that deposed President Arnulfo Arias in 1968. The National Guard chief ruled Panama from 1968 until 1981. Under his rule, the US agreed to transfer the canal to Panama beginning in December 1999.

Chavez the Myth was born on December 17, 1982, when he and two other young soldiers would take an oath under a tree known as El Samán de Güere, in Aragua State, which would birth the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement – 200. (MBR – 200). Basing their oath on the ideals of Simon Bolivar, the youths pledged to fight corruption, reform the National Armed Forces, and “rescue the values of the nation.”

Ten years later, on February 4, 1992, Chavez would lead a bloody failed coup against the government of President Carlos Andres Perez. It was on that day that Chavez would consolidate his mythological image. Before being carted off to prison, he demanded to address the nation through television; looking into the cameras, he asked the soldiers dying outside of the military museum where he was hiding to put their arms down, since they had failed to reach their objective, “por ahora,” for now.

Chavez spent two years in prison, where he was visited by his future wife Maria Isabel and scholars such as Jorge Giordani, who saw in him a prodigious force that transcended his military status. In prison, he continued to read books brought to him by his visitors.

After being pardoned by President Rafael Caldera, he founded the Movement for the Fifth Republic, promising to fight corruption and social injustice. Seven years later, he was elected to the Presidency with 60% of the vote.

Only three years after he was elected, Chavez encountered one of the most determined opposition movements in the hemisphere’s history. He survived a brief ouster in 2002, months of protests, a crippling oil strike and now, a recall referendum.

Why did Chavez win the referendum, at least in the eyes of the international court?

The opposition underestimated Chavez. By using colloquialisms on his weekly television and radio show, he endeared himself to an important segment of Venezuela’s poor population. Yet Chavez is not ignorant or uneducated, as his detractors would portray him. With a master's degrees in military sciences and engineering from the Military Academy, Chavez almost completed a Master’s Degree in political sciences at the prestigious Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. In addition, he is an avid and quick learner, according to Economy Minister Jorge Giordani, who once told me that he spends hours into the night asking questions and studying when he doesn’t understand a subject.

Chavez, the affable character who sings, laughs, and tells jokes, is not the real Chavez. After consolidating himself in power, the real Chavez spent the next part of his presidency rooting out enemies. With the so-called coup, he identified everyone in the National Armed Forces who opposed him, eliminating any military threat. During the strike, he identified every single person in the oil industry who opposed him, firing those who could impede his access to the billions of dollars now at his disposal. And with the signature drives, he identified every Venezuelan citizen who opposed him, purging the public sector of those who could block his plans.

This is not a stupid man.

At the same time that he was creating and destroying his enemies at home, Chavez courted the international community, forging important ties with Wall Street bankers, Caribbean and Middle Eastern countries, international newspapers, leftist activists, and multinational oil companies. It is no accident that his representative in Washington, Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, is an oil expert. Diplomacy is not a requirement in a country where the mighty dollar rules.

Now that all the pieces have fallen into place, Chavez is poised to “strengthen his revolution”, as he recently said. To defeat him in any election, the opposition will have to understand what a formidable opponent he really is, and convince both Venezuelans and the international community that it can offer more than he has promised to deliver. Otherwise, Chavez will remain in power, with or without fraud.

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