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The Next Fidel Castro?

Editorial | The Week Magazine

10/14/2005 | Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seizing private property in his country, calls George W. Bush a “terrorist,” and is threatening to cut off oil exports to the U.S. What does he hope to achieve?

How did Chavez come to power?

Chavez was an unknown colonel in the Venezuelan paratroopers when he led a 1992 military coup against President Carlos Andres Perez. The coup failed, and Chavez spent two years in prison, steeping himself in the Bible, Karl Marx, and other writings on social justice. By the time he got out, he had resolved to pursue a popular revolution through the ballot box.

What were his goals?

Chavez, invoking the name of the South American liberator Simón Bolívar, promised “revolutionary” social policies to improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans. Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest exporter of petroleum, and its vast oil wealth has helped create a privileged upper class. But about half of Venezuelans are desperately poor, surviving on less than $2 a day. The son of poor schoolteachers, Chavez frequently berated the country’s long-established business and political leaders as “predatory oligarchs.” He accused them of selling out their people to huge foreign corporations, and of squandering the riches extracted from the oil fields without passing anything on to the people.

Is he popular?

Among the poor, extremely so. When he ran for president in 1998, Chavez was swept into office with 59 percent of the vote, ending three decades of rule by the country’s two dominant political parties. He then pushed through a new constitution increasing the power of the presidency and won a fresh term in 2000. But Chavez’s appeal is hardly universal. He is detested by the country’s business executives, the independent media, much of the middle class, and the people who run the state-owned oil company—all of whom believe he’s trying to turn Venezuela into a communist dictatorship. Three years ago, an opposition movement supported by these groups tried to overthrow Chavez.

Did they succeed?

At first, yes. On April 11, 2002, soldiers allied with the opposition movement hustled Chavez off to a remote island military base, La Orchila, and demanded his resignation. A conservative newspaper, El Universal, ran a banner headline reading, “It’s Over!” The Bush administration called for calm and recognized the interim government. But after the coup, the streets of Caracas filled with angry protesters from shantytowns. Chavez refused to sign his resignation, and in the ensuing turmoil key military leaders declared their loyalty to him. After just two days, Chavez was back in office. Still, his presidency has remained turbulent, and his nation, bitterly divided over his policies.

What’s gone wrong?

Under Chavez, Venezuela’s economy is the worst of all possible worlds—a strange mixture of socialism and capitalism that achieves the goals of neither. Despite the country’s $35 billion a year in oil revenues, poverty has actually deepened under Chavez. His socialist philosophy has scared off badly needed foreign investment. Chavez, for example, recently proclaimed that the Las Cristinas gold-mining region “belongs to the state,” halting a Canadian company’s plan to begin Venezuela’s largest mining operation. The government also has seized hundreds of thousands of acres of land from cattle ranchers, wealthy farmers, and resort owners, and redistributed it to the poor. In many cases, the new “owners” have not been prepared to run these businesses, further undermining the country’s economy.

Why does Chavez hate the U.S.?

He’s acutely aware that the U.S. was alone among the region’s governments in failing to condemn the coup against him, and he has accused Washington of secretly orchestrating it. After televangelist Pat Robertson recently suggested it was time for the U.S. to assassinate Chavez, the Venezuelan president claimed that the Bush administration did, in fact, have such a plan, code-named “Balboa.” The White House says this is nonsense, but it has made no secret that it views Chavez as a dangerous man. Chavez has established a close relationship with Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro, and U.S. officials have accused Chavez of helping leftist guerrillas conduct a terrorist campaign against the government of neighboring Colombia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said Chavez is clearly a “negative force in the region.” In return, Chavez has accused President Bush of running a “terrorist administration” for invading Iraq, and he calls Bush Mr. Danger.

Could Chavez really cause any trouble?

Chavez has used some of the country’s oil wealth to bulk up Venezuela’s military with 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 30 attack helicopters, and has ordered $4 billion worth of MiG fighter jets from Russia. But these seem to be strictly defensive measures, springing from Chavez’s fear of an invasion or coup attempt. His threat to stop exporting oil to the U.S. isn’t taken much more seriously. Venezuela provides about 15 percent of the oil the U.S. imports, but if Chavez turned off the spigot, American energy companies would simply buy it elsewhere, at a somewhat higher price. But the U.S. would adjust, industry analysts say. Venezuela, on the other hand, would probably suffer more, since the U.S. buys 60 percent of Venezuela’s oil exports. Shipping crude to new buyers across the globe could cut deeply into the country’s profits.

So why is Chavez picking a fight?

Mostly because it helps him politically. Chavez is trying to position Venezuela as the leading counterweight to U.S. influence in the Americas, so anti-Americanism is fundamental to his message. (To curry favor with neighboring nations, he’s gives them a discount price on Venezuelan oil.) Chavez’s confrontations with Washington enhance his stature in the region and with his nation’s poor, who blame U.S. “imperialism” for their poverty. “Every time Condoleezza Rice attacks Chavez,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster and Chavez critic, “his approval rating goes up 2 or 3 percentage points.”

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