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A brief and personal view of the history of modern Venezuelan electoral politics and populism: Is Chavez different?

By Miguel Octavio | The Devil's Excrement

03.09.05 | Beware this is a very long post!


Somehow foreign readers come around to tell us that Chavez is different, because he “cares” about the poor, wants to “redistribute” wealth, is not part of the “elites” that have governed our country, because he is very “popular”, he wants to eliminate corruption and is a “break” from the past. I wonder how much this people know about

Venezuela’s forty years of political history prior to Chavez.

Indeed Chavez is different, but not for the reasons given above. He is different because he is strident, because he is confrontational, because he is militaristic, he is different, because he controls everything and just imagine, because he has governed for more years continuously than any President in what people like to call Venezuela’s modern democratic history. Yes, he is charismatic, he is also a good communicator, but he is probably the President that has taken populism to the highest levels of irresponsibility in Venezuela.

The last Dictator

But let’s look back a little bit. Venezuela’s modern democratic political history begins in 1958, when Dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez was overthrown. Perez Jimenez was overthrown because people were fed up with the human right abuses of his Government. They were very prosperous times however, as Perez Jimenez’ militaristic Government took what would now be called a market approach to the economy, the Government was a builder of public works, a regulator and a promoter of investments in the country. Couple this with oil and this wroked very well at the time. But human rights abuses were rampant, political parties were persecuted, the national police tortured political enemies and dissent and protest were not allowed. The economy grew, immigrants from Europe arrived in droves to work in this land of opportunity and there was a lot of corruption but mostly within the closed circle surrounding the President, mostly with the military inner circle. Universities were not allowed to grow as fast as the rest of the educational system, great infrastructure was built, inflation was low and elections were joke in a country with roughly 8 million people.

The First Election: Let’s get democracy going (1958-1963)

After the overthrow of Perez Jimenez, the country was ruled by a Junta which scheduled elections. There were three candidates. Accion Democrática, the social democratic party of the “poor”, the party that had a headquarters in all towns of Venezuela with more than 1,000 inhabitants, the party promising to redistribute the land, fielded Romulo Betancourt. Betancourt, a Marxist, had participated in the coup that overthrew Medina Angarita in October 1945. Betancourt was a populist as a candidate, not as President, but he was facing former Admiral Wolfgang Larrazabal, one of the military officers who overthrew Perez Jimenez, who in that election was an even more of a populist than Betancourt. Larrazabal was backed by the Communist party and URD, whose leader had actually won an election during Perez Jimenez’ time but was simply ripped off. Finally, there was Rafael Caldera, representing the social Christian party (COPEI), the party of the middle class and the wealthy elite. The intellectual elite was probably mostly backing Larrazabal, via the Communist party and URD.

Well, neither of the parties backed by the “two” elites won. The party of the poor, the popular party of the people, won handily with 49% of the vote. Larrazabal came in second with 34% and Caldera, the party of the wealthy elite, came in a distant third with 16% of the vote. Score one for the populists, score one for Marxism, score one for those with a past overthrowing someone (they came in one-two) and score half a point for former military. Sound familiar?

But let’s move on.

The second election: A nice man runs Venezuela (1963-1968)

The Betancourt years were rough, there were three coup attempts, an attempt on Betancourt’s life, he banned the Communist party, Fidel Castro kept trying to overthrow him, there was agrarian reform (more land was distributed in his five years than Chavez has expropriated or given away in seven), oil prices went down forcing the President to cut the budget by 10% at a time of no inflation, his party split for the first time, corruption was low, but Betancourt was set in establishing democracy in Venezuela by handing over power democratically and retiring from politics. And he did.

In 1963, there were six candidates, two for AD, which split into two factions, one led by Ramos Gimenez which was supposed to represent better the rural poor. Raul Leoni, a man darker than Chavez by skin color (which was and is not that relevant in Venezuela, but seems to have a sort of romantic significance to some foreigners when they defend Chavez) was the candidate of the party of the people and the poor, running a campaign much like Betancourt, promising continuity in handing over land, benefiting the poor, redistributing the wealth and establishing democracy. He faced Jovito Villalba, the old leftist leader from URD. Rafael Caldera once again was a candiadte. Arturo Uslar Pietri of “sowing the oil” and literary fame and that Venezuelan rarity, Larrazabal trying to revive his fleeting popularity of 1958 and German Borregales, running as the only “right wing” candidate.

Despite the split in AD, Leoni won with 33% of the vote, because the middle class and the wealthy and intellectual elites split between Uslar (16%) and Caldera (20%), Larrazabal did badly (10%), Ramos Jimenez faltered (2%) and Borregales the right wing candidate got all of 9,000 of the almost three million votes. Score another one for the poor, the disenfranchised that now had a franchise, land reform and democracy. Big losers were the right, the middle class, the intellectuals and the military. (An American may have thought it was a victory for race, nobody cared down here about Leoni’s color)

The third election: First and last win for the middle class and the elite (1969-1973)

Leoni’s period had been one of stability and some prosperity as his Government began the first expansion of the Government state industries, labor unions gained power, social security was started and lots of basic infrastructure was built. It was a time of peace and Leoni became known as a “good man” and a good President.

AD tried to impose democracy from the base, had primaries won by Luis Beltran Prieto Figueroa, from the extreme left wing of AD. Betancourt, from his self-imposed exile in Bern, banned his win and named close friend Gonzalo Barrios as the AD candidate. Barrios was an educated party man, the main objections to him was he was single (get it?) and that he had lost the primary. He was facing Rafael Caldera once again, the candidate of the elites and the middle class, but this time turned into more of a populist, offering to build 100,000 houses a year for the poor, his background as a labor lawyer and his appeal to the young and women. Borregales was once again around and Miguel Angel Burelli Rivas an intellectual, split the vote of the middle class. But AD could not recover from its division. Caldera won by 30,000 votes and 29% of the vote, Barrios had 27.5%, Burelli 12%, Prieto 17% and the rest far behind. The “right” represented by Borregales got 12,000 votes, despite there being almost one million new voters. Barrios, graciously accepted defeat, despite the fact that there were sufficient irregularities to raise doubts, it was his finest moment. Score a victory for the middle class, really it's only one in all these years, a win for the wealthy elite, populism and the church. The poor and the people lose, democracy loses. as the first primary ever turned into a fiasco and the right, once again was non-existent. There was a small victory for militarism as former Dictator Perez Jimenez was elected to the Senate; he is denied the win on a technicality.

The fourth election: CAP and the great Venezuela (1974-1978)

Caldera’s term was characterized by his “pacification” of the country, whereby he pardoned former guerilla members and the policies of extending development to all corners of the country. But he never overcame his elitist image, his somewhat arrogant behavior and the fact that he was the first President to use the media heavily, with his weekly program Habla el Presidente (sound familiar?). But he was too long on promises and not that long on delivery as oil prices stagnated, he did not deliver on his housing promises (a mistake never to be made by any candidate), expanded Government bureaucracy dramatically and AD regrouped by going back to the grassroots and yes, focusing on the poor, their “people”.

COPEI picked Lorenzo Fernandez to succeed Caldera, Fernandez was his Interior Minister, a quiet man, white and elitist, who was picked by the party over the more populist and leftwing Luis Herrera Campins, some say over suspicious circumstances. AD meanwhile, had been plotting its return for five years. Carlos Andres Perez, Betancourt’s former Minister of the Interior, became the first presidential candidate in Venezuela to use the media full blast. Add to that that he spent five years going around the country and ran an electrifying populist campaign.”El hombre que camina” (The man who walked”) who sold himself to everyone, but mostly to the poor as their savior. There were many other candidates; including the first candidacy by newly formed party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) a splinter group from the communist party. Its first Presidential candidate? None other than our current Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel. But it was a two man race all the way, Carlos Andres Perez (CAP) polarizing the electorate with his promises, his populism and his extremely active campaign giving him 49% of the vote versus Fernandez’ 35% and the other ten (Yes, ten!) candidates splitting the rest. No wonder Venezuelan women say all men in this country want to be President!

Score another one for the poor and populism, the elite loses, nationalism wins. The Government can do it all. Yeah! Yeah!

Fifth Election: Back to the poor (1978-1983)

If CAP was electrifying as a candidate he dazzled everyone in his first year in power. Even before being sworn in, he announced the nationalization of the oil and iron industries (Chavez did not do it, which is sometimes claimed abroad eve by his supporters) which he planned to redistribute (sound familiar). This was followed by a flashy first 100 days, where very visible things were accomplished, from cleaning the cities to buying to hundreds of new buses for public transportation to daily announcements about new industries that would diversify the country's economy. CAP created the Venezuelan investment fund to “save” for the future (and spent most of it within two years), the Corporacion Venezolano de Fomento (CVF) to develop the country, creating thousands of new industries, the steelworks were expanded, the aluminum industry was started (with no bauxite at the beginning, simply cheap electricity), thousands of schools and high schools were built, a couple of hundred hospitals, 10,000 Venezuelans were sent to study abroad and dams were built to guarantee electricity and water for at least a couple of decades. Even full employment was decreed by CAP’s statist first Government, as each restroom and elevator in the country was decreed to have a person running it. Full employment did indeed set in. CAP truly believed oil prices were high to stay, they could never drop. (Umm, reminds you of somebody, no?)

But it was all too much, too fast. The Government grew and expanded too much, salaries were increased yearly by decree and the ugly head of corruption showed up quite visibly for the first time ever. CAP tried to become an international leader for the third world, giving away boats to Bolivia, oil to Central America and promoting a “:new economic order”. (Eerie, no?). Oil prices dropped, inflation went up, unemployment grew, after three years of expansion and growth; everything came to a halt as oil prices dropped. CAP cut the budget and his former Minister of the Interior Luis Piñerua, an uneducated man became AD’s candidate. Meanwhile, COPEI’s left wing took over the social Christian party with the candidacy of Luis Herrera Campins,

Luis Herrera ran as the “President for the poor”, promising to improve the barrios, campaigning only in the barrios, a man from the plains, a simple man, who would use popular sayings at every stop to draw attention of the poor to his candidacy, trying to change the usual image of his party. Piñerua on the other hand just promised to be honest ( to counteract the corruption image of his party) and defended his lack of education, promising to jumpstart growth and prosperity. There were ten candidates again, but Luis Herrera trumped AD 46% to 43%. Once again, the most populist candidate won. Another victory for the poor, populism and the middle class and the elite were likely divided between the two options. Jose Vicente Rangel was MAS’s candidate once again, but got less than 5% of the vote, the other seven candidates are hard to recall. Diego Arria, a CAP Minister and Governor, tried to appeal to the middle class elite and got 70,000 votes, out of more than five million. Abstention was less than 12%, up from 3.5%! People were worried about this “development”. On his first day, Luis Herrera blasted CAP: “I receive a mortgaged country” he said, his popularity jumped, but it would not last.

Sixth Election: It’s been downhill since then (1983-1989)

Luis Herrera enjoyed during his first two years an oil bonanza that did not happen again until the Chavez era. Oil prices jumped from $16 per barrel to $30 per barrel. Keeping his promise to redistribute the wealth, Luis Herrera increased salaries between 30% and 50% immediately; there were once again visible signs of corruption while the Government had little to show for all its wealth. It was the last time that oil income per capita went up in twenty years and it showed. Venezuelans of all levels felt poorer as oil dropped, but the Government kept spending. The currency which had been essentially constant for the last twenty years, until a de facto currency conversion system was eliminated by CAP, was devalued violently from Bs. 4.3 to the US$ to Bs 8 on the first day and eventually to Bs. 12 by the end of Luis Herrera’s period. All Venezuelans were suddenly poorer, much poorer and Luis Herrera, the COPEI President of the poor, was to blame. Exchange controls were imposed and Venezuelan politicians discovered them as a source of power and yes, wealth, in the form of levels of corruption never seen until then in Venezuela.

For the next election, AD internally picked medical doctor and party apparatchik Jaime Lusinchi as their candidate. He ran under the slogan “Jaime is like you”, a man of the people, a man of humble origins. Meanwhile, on COPEI’s side, Rafael Caldera retook over his party and tried to bring it back to his origin, Rafael Caldera should be back after the ten year Constitutional hiatus! Beacuse he is better, he is good Oh, yes, there were thirteen candidates in total, including Teodoro Petkoff as candidate of the socialist party MAS, it was time to forget about Rangel who after all, was not even a loyal part member. And it showed, Rangel immediately jumped shipped and set up camp separately as candidate for another leftwing party MEP. But it was all irrelevant, the “people” picked the man like them, Jaime Lusinchi, giving him 55% of the vote and a huge 3.7 million votes, more than Chavez ever got in his two elections, despite the fact that there were less than seven million eligible voters, versus Chavez’ more than 11 million.

CAP II: Populism, realism, coups and impeachment (1989-1994)

Jaime Lusinchi rode on a wave of fiscal spending, populism and borrowing that allowed him to maintain his popularity until his last day in office. He maintained exchanged controls throughout his five years in office, subsidizing food and essentials with a separate exchange rate that was less than half of that as the more “available” rate. Imports were subsidized massively. When funds were running short, he would tell foreign banks that he could not pay and the debt had to be refinanced. His private secretary was his mistress, corruption ballooned through the exchange control office, and little was done in terms of infrastructure and nothing in terms of improving the structure of the state. But he had sixty percent plus popularity when he left office on the back of fiscal spending and direct aid programs like the “Barrio Modules” and direct scholarships to the poor (sound familiar?), even if he lost his popularity rapidly after leaving office.

But CAP was waiting in the wings using the same strategy as in 1973-1974, visit every town, promise the world and “with the Adecos you live better”. Caldera tried to be a candidate again (he knew that job!), but finally had to give way to his younger successor Eduardo Fernandez, who was not that young by then. There were 23 candidates, including Alejandro Pena Esclusa for the “right”; he got less than three thousand votes. CAP was too energetic, too charismatic, too much of a populist and he promised the world, he won handily with 3.8 million votes (53%) versus Fernandez 40%, Petkoff was a distant third with 2.5%.

CAP had been audacious in his campaign promises despite his understanding that the country’s finances were a mess. But he had contacts and the next President of the United States had promised he would get the aid he needed. Except that Dukakis lost four weeks before CAP won and no aid was forthcoming. There was only one option as the country’s Treasury only had $300 million the day CAP was “crowned” as the new President of Venezuela. He walked the streets that day, the President of the people, ever the populist and ever popular. Ten days later he had an agreement with the IMF that would lend him the money to prop up the country’s finances, but which required removing exchange controls, some subsidies, including gasoline's, and restructuring the tax and pension systems. Two weeks later protests over the increase in the price of gas led to more than 300 dead as violence and looting became widespread as TV became a sort of feedback mechanism and the Government did little to stop the "Caracazo". By the time time CAP decided to stop in third day, the Army had to be brought in.

In the next year, CAP introduced the biggest decentralization reform ever in the country’s history. Governors would be elected, not named, so would Mayors. Bills were introduced to privatize the phone company, electric companies, steel industry and aluminum industry. A pension bill was introduced. But CAP was too cocky and began fighting with his party, which felt threatened by the reforms. The economy grew strongly for one year, but on February 1992, four Lieutenant Colonels attempted a coup, three were successful with their military objectives, the fourth, Hugo Chavez, was not. But he got to go on nationwide TV to surrender. That minute of fame changed history with his famous “For now, we have not achieved our objective”. He turned his personal failure into a collective defeat, which later would change his life and would make him a winner.

The next year, as CAP’s popularity decreased, a US$ 20 million "fishy" transaction was discovered and used to impeach him. Venezuela was in limbo for many months as the proceedings progressed and all of the reforms were left aside. CAP was impeached and his term completed by Ramon J. Velasquez..

As the elections approached, Eduardo Fernandez thought he had the candidacy locked up, so he invented a primary in which the whole country could participate as a way of stopping Caldera who was out of the country. He lost and popular Governor of Zulia state Oswaldo Álvarez Paz won. Claudio Fermin seized the opportunity and became AD’s candidate. Causa Radical leader Andres Velasquez ran his own campaign and Rafael Caldera arrived in the country and managed to obtain the backing of the more leftwing parties ranging from MAS, to the communist party, MEP and URD. Amazingly enough, the former candidate of the elite and the middle class transformed himself into the leader of the Venezuelan left overnight. Only Causa R did not support him. Caldera ran a very populist campaign, promising the impossible, and a litle more. Velasquez ran a very responsible campaign, in my own opinion, with very specific proposals rather than empty promises. Fermin surprised everyone coming in second, also running a serious campaign. Caldera won with 30%, Fermin was second with 23%, Álvarez Paz, the candidate of the middle class and the elites came in third with 22% and Velasquez was fourth with 21%. Once again of the two candidates of the “poor” the one with the highest dose of populism had won. I am sorry Velasquez lost, Venezuela would be different, but that brand of populism that scared the middle class away from him because he was too radical hurt him too much, Caldera was the safe choice. Ha!

Caldera II: A tale of two Governments (1994-1998)

Caldera’s Government had two stages. In the first, he ran the country with stubbornness and with his close circle of friends He imposed exchange controls quickly igniting a huge financial crisis that devalued the currency from around Bs. 100 to Bs. 5000 in less than two years. But inflation kept growing and he could not stop it. Then one day exactly half way through his term, he got rid of his buddies and named Teodoro Petkoff as Minister of Planning. He changed course, removed controls, negotiated with everyone a pension bill (yes, the same one as in 1991), privatize CANTV, the steel industry and pushed forward the oil opening. But oil prices began collapsing and there was little growth despite a period of optimism. Then the Russian and Asian crisis came and it was game over for any hope for Petkoff or Caldera’s party Convergencia to field a good candidate. They didn’t.

The leading candidate was former Miss Universe and Mayor of Chacao Irene Saez. Laughed at initially as Mayor, she quickly converted her success (and her looks) into a leading role. Meanwhile, Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez who had been pardoned by Caldera and could thus run for President, was calling for a boycott of the election and the overthrow of the Government. And then he met Luis Miquilena, an 80 year old former union leader that convinced him he could win the election. Chavez bought it. Miquilena brokered a deal to have MAS back Chavez and give his candidacy legitimacy. All left wing parties backed Chavez. (Few support him today). AD kicked Fermin out of the party so that one of its founders, 80 years old could run. Carabobo Governor Salas Romer ran under his own party. Chavez was the candidate of the poor, the populist, he won. He promised to eliminate corruption, redistribute wealth and land, give us more democracy, reduce crime, and reduce poverty. He did not promise a “revolution”. He won with 56% of the vote versus 40% for Salas Romer

Chavez has not delivered on his promises and he has already been in power longer than all of those Presidents. Much like the earlier Presidents a new “elite” is rising associated with the deals and the corruption of the Government. Corruption is simply staggering. Chavez continues to be a populist, promising today what he promised seven years ago but has not delivered.

So my friends and readers if you manage to get through this long rant, I ask: Is Chavez any different? Is he a break from the past? Is he more popular? Has he delivered more? Have the "elites" by wealth or the intellectauls ran this country much? Or is Chavez as popular as Jaime Lusinchi, as incompetent as Luis Herrera, as irresponsible as CAP, as much of a dreamer as CAP, as impractical as all of them, without the vision of Betancourt, without the kindness of Leoni, without the intelligence of Caldera and as cynic as most of them?

The truth is that maybe the elites left politics too much to the politicians, as if it were a nuisance. This post is my answer, but please don’t come telling me that Chavez is the first to offer to change the lot of the poor, or to care for the poor, or that he is doing what he promised, or he is a break from the past. To me, he is more of the same, but militaristic, strident, autocratic and concerned with the well being of Hugo Chavez and his political movement alone.And that, in my book, makes him much worse. And he is as he has destroyed what little institutionallity and checks and balances this country had. That's not the way to build a better society.

(This is my own personal view of the last fifty years; I am sure that in writing this long post I may have made small mistakes. But I am sure I have described the politicians correctly in the context of their claims, times, promises and values. If not, please let me know why. Thank you)

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