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Hugo Chavez: the clone of totalitarianism

By Diogo Schelp* | Veja on-line

VEJA – 4 May 2005 | The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, who has been in power more than six years, threatens stability in Latin America by financing and aiding radical groups in neighboring countries, creating a civil militia, using petroleum to bribe Central American republics, buying arms, and allying himself with Fidel Castro, whose clone he is becoming, a misshapen and anachronistic one at that. In Venezuela, Chávez has adopted a centralizing government, changed laws so as to have better control over the opposition and has increased the size of the State, leading to the destruction of one of the oldest democracies in the region : the population has become impoverished, foreign investors have disappeared and the foreign debt has increased.

Leftist presidents are in power in Brazil , Argentina , Chile and Uruguay . Next year, elections could likely add Peru and Mexico to the list. It is a heterogeneous group as to methods and personalities, but none of the rulers forming this group pose a risk to their own people or to neighboring countries. Curiously, the only president from the Latin American countries who is a time bomb, paratrooper Colonel Hugo Chávez of Venezuela , cannot be classified as a leftist. He has no socialist or Marxist past, neither theoretic, nor practical. He came from a military background and became an authoritarian populist and a braggart. For three main reasons, Chávez today represents a danger to democracy and a threat to stability in Latin America . Clearly, the first reason is that he is not content just to cast off pseudopodia [expansive transitory structures, as seen under the microscope, which push out and slough off of the main body to then cast themselves off in the direction of an apparent target, only to vanish immediately] throughout a growing sphere of influence on the American continents. Second, because, in order to promote his expansionism, he has access to easy money coming from his petrodollars, originating from the wealth of the Venezuelan subsurface. Third, but of no less concern, Chávez is sowing insurrection and instability in countries where, although nominally democratic, there is a struggle going on to solidify their political and judicial institutions, and their economic foundations for material progress. The combination of the three aforementioned reasons makes Chávez a new and great risk on the horizon of a suffering Latin America .

During the last six years since he was elected, Chávez has used his position to initiate in his country the construction of an anachronistic version of the totalitarian regime that exists in Cuba . The colonel still has yet to reach that sophistication which guaranteed survival for Fidel Castro, indeed a leftist, a fossil from the Cold War who survives on his own private island like a magnanimous foreman, but still a repressor. Chávez, nevertheless, already made his way up to the commander's platform in a typically authoritarian regime that compromises essential freedoms. Curiously—but not surprisingly—“operation dismantle” [a term used in Brazil for the process of dismantling governmental powers and state-owned enterprises through the use of cutbacks, mergers and eliminations] as applied to Venezuelan democracy was brought about by what is credited to be the most democratic means of representation—the plebiscites. There have been seven popular referenda in six years. This direct democracy skipped over institutions and allowed the Chavistas to rewrite the Constitution and to demolish the other powers of the Republic. After a long arm-wrestling match of sorts with the opposition, the Venezuelan president won last year’s plebiscite that was intended to cut his mandate short. Victorious, Chávez got up the courage and went on the offensive to neutralize any challenge to his authority.

For five reasons, outlined by Mexican political scientist Adrián Gurza Lavalle, of the Pontificia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, Venezuela can no longer be considered to be a democratic State.

  • The autonomy of powers, a basic principle of democracy, has been suppressed. Chávez increased the number of judges on the Supreme Court from twenty to 32 and filled the new appointments with political allies. Judges from the lower courts can loose their jobs if they issue sentences unfavorable to the government.
  • In a democracy, if the opposition loses elections, it continues participating in the political game. In Venezuela the opposition is being gagged. The new Penal Code, which has just come into force, makes any form of criticism of the government illegal. At the moment, 248 persons, among them journalists, labor and political leaders, university professors and members of the military are already being prosecuted on these grounds.
  • The gag law forces the press to adopt self-censorship. Commentaries or news may be interpreted as being an attempt to destabilize the government and serve as reason for prosecution. Other legislation restricts times during which radio and television may broadcast news.
  • The political and institutional rules of the game have been changing constantly, ever since Chávez vested himself with extraordinary powers in the six plebiscites which he called and which he won.
  • There is no longer any respect for standards governing the right to private property. The government began its agrarian reform project by expropriating an estate that is home to the largest herd of cattle in the country,

To these can be added the attacks on economic freedom, like the one perpetrated last week, when Chávez expanded price controls in the economy, while also limiting bank interest rates to a 28% maximum per year. It is pathetic. None of this works—as Brazilians well know.

A scandalous innovation in the new penal code in Venezuela is the revocation of the presumption of innocence. The concept that any person is innocent until proven otherwise, created by the French Revolution, is one of the foundations of modern law. The abolishment of individual guarantees such as this one was precisely one of Fidel Castro's first punishments when he came to power in Cuba . Chávez shows an almost pathologic need to present himself as the clone of Fidel Castro, the dean of dictators. Both show off wearing military uniforms and speak on for hours, mixing banalities with matters of state. If Caracas weren’t clearly substituting Havana as general quarters for the revolutionary insurrection, all this would more likely be a laughable banana republic “patuscada” [Brazilian word for a festive gathering of friends partaking of food, drink, and maybe music and dancing, ranging from the quiet to the raucous. Politicians sometimes say “don’t make a ‘patuscada’ out of this debate” or “don’t let the ‘patuscada’ escalate into a tragedy.”] Finally, ever since the Berlin Wall toppled over in 1989 onto the armed and unarmed utopias of the left, governments who are suppressors of liberty and centralizers of the economy are no longer taken seriously by anyone.

Communist Cuba never had the strength to stand on its own two feet without the billions it received in annual aid from the extinct Soviet Union , whose bizarre structure was dismantled in 1991, caving in under its own sins and inefficiencies. No longer having the monthly payments it once received from the Soviet Union , Cuba has lost the will to go out on adventures away from the island. What is more, it would have already crumbled without the financial assistance from Chávez. Fidel idolizes the Venezuelan president. He sees him as the last attempt at leaving his people with a less bitter inheritance. Almost a half century after the implementation of communism, Cuba is a country a lot worse off than it was in the 1950's. Before Hurricane Fidel, the island was shown to have the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America . Today Cuba is 15 th. Cuba had been the third on a list of eleven Latin American countries with the highest food consumption per capita, with a daily average of 2,730 calories. Today the island occupies the last place. Health and education have improved a lot. But many countries, such as Brazil , Mexico and Costa Rica have obtained similar results without enslaving their people, without firing walls—or presidents who wear a uniform and make speeches nine hours long.

In command of the fifth largest oil producer, Chávez possesses unlimited cash. Thanks to the increases in the international price per barrel, Venezuela has collected 200 billion dollars from exporting the product. “Chávez has a clear objective: he wants to become the great leader of Latin America ’s masses," VEJA was told by historian Manuel Caballero, the most respected in the country. Fidel has in his curriculum vitae a failed revolution, although it has inspired an entire generation. The Cuban dictator also has at his disposal Marxist-Leninist discourse, which has dealt cards from its deck throughout half the planet. Now the Venezuelan president falls into the category of the enlightened caudillo, typical of Hispanic America, whose revolutionary dreams turn into his own fantasies. "Chávez is a Fidel without a brain and with petroleum,” thus he was defined for VEJA by Andrés Oppenheimer, a columnist for the American daily The Miami Herald and a respected Latin America specialist.

While there may be no ideological coherence in Chávez, his strategic plan is concrete. In sum, the five most easily identifiable external actions with which he seeks to broaden his influence in Latin America are:

  • First, he is using petroleum, abundant in Venezuela , to make his neighboring countries dependent. The most susceptible to this strategy are the small nations of Central America and the Caribbean , all very poor, and who import from Venezuela up to 80% of the oil they consume.
  • Second, Chávez gives money and political and technical support to Latin American leftist movements, many of which have—or have had—plans to seize power by force in order to establish a socialist dictatorship.
  • Third, Venezuela has substituted the Soviet Union as the Castro regime’s sponsor, supplying oil and stocking the country with industrial consumer goods, all for a token price or as non-recoverable funds.
  • Fourth, the Venezuelan president interferes in the internal affairs of other countries in various ways. He supports candidates to the Presidency and sponsors radical movements. In Nicaragua , for instance, he solicited votes for Sandinista Daniel Ortega and in Peru he gave money to a group that tried to overthrow the government by a “cuartelazo” [a coup orchestrated by the military from within closed quarters].
  • Fifth, Hugo Chávez has adopted a virulent anti-American discourse, one which is music to the ears of the Cold War—and they are numerous among the Latin American left. A left which has always characterized itself as following nationalist caudillos, as long as they follow an anti-American discourse. This has emerged as an opportunistic strategy. Most melancholic of all is the fact it has now become the essence of the left. What a pity.

Why does Chávez persist in trying to start a fight with the United States ? He constantly says that the Americans want to kill him or that they are about to invade the country. Up until now, what we have really seen is the government of George W. Bush avoiding answers to the provocations. Being quite busy, with the confusion it brought about in the Middle East , the White House had been relying on countries friendly to Chávez, but ones having responsible governments, to counsel the colonel into being more moderate. Meanwhile, American firms in Venezuela have begun to be confined to bread and water. Without further explanation, the Caracas government suspended a contract which had permitted Conoco-Phillips, the third largest American oil company, to explore one of the nation’s oil fields. Three months ago, he closed down the eighty hamburger stands belonging to McDonald’s and the four Coca-Cola plants operating in the country. This week, adding to the ridiculousness of the battle against the McDonald’s stands and Coca-Cola, a most amusing initiative took place: the announcement in Havana , by Chávez and Fidel, of the creation of ALBA. This turns out to be the two men´s answer to ALCA-FTAA, a free trade area for the Americas proposed by the United States . ALBA, furthermore, is a folly of Chávez's that is not going to interest anybody.

It is estimated that Venezuela is injecting into Cuba , as non-recoverable funds, the equivalent of 20% of all the money entering the island. That has been a bad thing for Cubans, because with this cash flow relief Fidel has felt encouraged to quash whatever inkling there was of a political aperture and has gone so far as to close down small private businesses, such as restaurants, which were the livelihood of so many Cubans. It is ironic how the revolution generated an official state of mendicancy: for decades Cuba lived off of the monthly installments sent by Moscow . Now it survives on Venezuelan donations.

The United States is sending out signals that show Chávez is getting the attention he wants. A reaction seems inevitable and there is a diplomatic campaign underway to isolate the Caracas regime. And it will have to be a long-term strategy, since Chávez stands a good chance of winning another six-year term of office. One of the Americans' concerns derives from the purchases of armaments in quantities far beyond what would be reasonable in a country whose Army has hardly 35,000 men. Since January, Venezuela has purchased more than 7 billion dollars worth of warplanes, helicopters, ships and radar systems. The Russian package includes 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles.

The assault rifles are more worrisome than tanks because they cannot be detected by satellites. Aircraft and ships are of no use to irregular forces; AK-47 assault rifles, like the ones purchased by Venezuela , are the standard-issue weapon of the Colombian narcoguerilla and of guerrilla warriors in general. The Russians also sold a munitions factory to the Venezuelans. The FARC are well armed, but have great difficulty obtaining ammunition. They pay as much as two dollars for a single AK-47 assault rifle bullet. Imagine what a wonderful deal it is to have a projectile factory along the other side of the border. Even though Chávez may not have any intentions of supplying armaments to the guerrillas, he has no control over the corruption that rules at all ranks of his administration, including the Army. "Chávez’s plans to set up a factory for that kind of ammunition must worry not just the United States , but also Venezuela ’s neighbors," thus spoke Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick recently.

This is of real concern for Brazil . Early on, the Lula government exchanged vows of eternal love with Chávez, whom he accepted as a member of the same brotherhood of leftist presidents. Relations have really chilled. Today, they are not enemies, but Chávez's actions are currently the greatest source of irritation for President Lula in the foreign realm. Itamaraty [the Brazilian< foreign office] does not hide its assessment that Chávez resents the respect Lula draws from abroad. Each time Chávez makes any exaggerated declarations, such as the one claiming that American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a crush on him, Lula approaches his colleague and asks him to show more moderation. Chávez promises to behave himself but never keeps his word.

Venezuela is a country with an abundance of petroleum, but with practically no other sources of income. In 1958, a pact among the parties guaranteed political stability until the 1990´s, one of the longest periods of democracy on the continent. It insured that money from petroleum would finance a patron-client State . The drop in oil prices in the 1980´s spoiled everything. Corruption is endemic in Venezuela . The president whom Chávez tried to overthrow in 1992, Carlos Andrés Pérez, ended up in jail for having diverted 17 million dollars. Since 1990, eleven Latin American presidents have been deposed or forced to resign prior to the end of their terms of office. In almost all the cases, they were toppled for being corrupt or simply because they were governing over failed economies. The most perverse side of this instability is the feeling that the voters are incapable of delivering a country from the corrupt, or of promoting reforms necessary for the improvement of the lives of the population. It is in this environment that populists like Chávez thrive.

It is no surprise that Chávez charms so many leftists, or that they see him as a healthy novelty in Latin American politics. Making disastrous assessments and following anyone who antagonizes the United States is in the DNA of militants of the left. In the past, the left also gladly followed other fathers of the country, such as Juan Domingo Perón, whose promise it was to solve the nation's problems with a snap of the fingers and, of course, blaming everything on the United States. Chávez was received with furious joy at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre . It is frightening that so many people feasted him so, rather than Chile , the only Latin American country that has reduced poverty by half. It is the curse of caudillismo, the senile affliction of the left.

With reports from Ruth Costas and José Eduardo Barella

A Richer Government, A Poorer Venezuelan People

Ever since Chávez assumed power in 1999, the price of oil—the country's main export product—has increased 600% on the world market. Last year Venezuela collected 47% more in sales of this product compared to 2003, making the GDP grow 17%. Despite this wealth, life for Venezuelans has grown worse under the Chávez government.

Before Chávez | Today
Population under poverty line 43% 54%
Unemployment 11% 16%
Per Capita Income* (in US$) 4650 4190
Number of Industrial Firms 11.000 5.000
Foreign Investment (in US$ per year) 2 billion 1 Billion
Inflation (yearly) 11% 17%
Public Debt (in US$) 27.5 billion 44.8 Billion

*as purchasing power

Colonel Chávez’s Geopolitics

Hugo Chávez uses money, petroleum, political action and even ammunitions in order to increase his influence in Latin America .



To bring to power guerrilla fighter Shafik Handal of the FMLN, a group defeated in a war that cost 70,000 lives in the 1980’s.

Action taken?

He helps with money.



To restore power to Sandinista Daniel Ortega.

Action taken?

Publicly, only statements of support.



To have a voice in Ecuadorian domestic politics.

Action taken?

Displays of support and receptions for indigenous leaders.



To destabilize the government of President Alejandro Toledo.

Action taken?

He gave 100,000 dollars to coup leader Major Antauro Humala, leader of cuartelazos [coupattempts orchestrated by the military command from within closed quarters]



To promote Movimiento al Socialismo [Movement toward Socialism]

Action taken?

Financed the 2002 campaign of coca grower Evo Morales, whom he continues to support with money.



To support the narcoguerrillas.

Action taken?

He allows FARC to use Venezuelan territory for training, refuge and medical treatment. Logistical help in communications and transportation.



To provide sustenance to Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.

Action taken?

He sends free oil and buys stale products — 20% of island's income comes from Venezuela .



To have former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez expelled from the country.

Action taken?

He suspended the delivery of oil and supported opposition candidate who won the elections.



To win over movements of the radical left.

Action taken?

The MST and other radical groups have won seats in the Bolivarian Peoples Congress, which lends support to the revolutionary left.



To endorse President Kirchner’s nationalistic braggadocio.

Action taken?

Investments made as non-recoverable funds. He helps unemployed picketers and other bullies of populist Peronismo.

Translation by W.K.

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