Say Venezuela and it brings up the name of Hugo Chavez. El comandante, as his supporters call him, comes with an unsavoury reputation. He rules forever in a country awash with petroleum. He has built a personality cult around himself. The capital Caracas is also the murder capital of the world. He wants to transform Venezuela into a socialist society and get rid of private property. He befriends leaders the Americans don’t like. They can’t wait to get rid of him and el comandante reciprocates: once, on live television, he called George W. Bush a donkey.
I have been following events in Venezuela for years and have a very different understanding of what is going on in the South American country. The presidential elections of October this year gave me the opportunity to test my impressions.
The flight to Caracas was filled with opposition supporters flocking home to vote. A young couple told me they wouldn’t vote at the consulate in London: it was staffed by Chavez supporters, the Chavistas. This would be a familiar refrain. Curiously, for a supposed dictatorship, I found them speaking freely to strangers, in their homes and on the streets. Taxi drivers and tour guides opposed to Chavez would turn off the radio as soon as they heard him. At the home of the lady from whom I had rented a room, the daughter would change the television channel whenever Chavez appeared on it. The mother was a Chavez supporter, but she kept quiet.
Most of the major newspapers, the more popular television stations and almost all radio stations were with the opposition. Their headlines were partisan and their coverage of the young opposition challenger to Chavez, Henrique Capriles, adulatory. The dictatorship and restrictions on freedom of expression were becoming harder to understand.
The Chavez-baiters were obsessive, especially with outsiders. All that was good about Venezuela had always been so but everything wrong with their country was Chavez’s fault. Their hate was personal and it ran deep. This time, they thought, they had Chavez on the ropes. He had cancer and was unpopular. His supporters had turned against him. He would lose the elections, they kept telling me, which is what the private media kept telling them. In the end, Chavez won comfortably in elections which even the Opposition admitted were free and fair.
Chavez supporters at a red point, Merida, Venezuela
For Chavez to win, he must have had supporters. They were not hard to find. I met them in droves, from the small Andean town of Merida where I stayed most of the time to fishermen on tourist islands and even more in Caracas, conspicuous in their red T-shirts and caps that said, ‘Chavez the heart of the people’. The love for their comandante was something personal, something between them and him, without in-betweens and without expecting anything in return. I had not known anything like it and without setting foot in Venezuela it would have been impossible to vouch for its authenticity. This was not a cult of personality imposed from above; it was a like a new Latin American religion taking shape from below, from among the poor. Chavez was their messiah.
This love had its reasons. Since coming to power 13 years ago, Chavez has made dramatic improvements to the life of the poor majority. I found health units staffed mostly by Cuban doctors in every town, small or big, where treatment and basic medicines were free. There were new play areas in even the remotest Andean villages. The state schools were clean and spacious and every primary schoolchild in Venezuela gets a free sturdy laptop called Canaimita.
Food is not cheap in Venezuela. It remains a speculative economy, used to living on easy oil money. Inflation runs high but the poor can at least buy from the state food shops where the subsidy on basic items like oil, flour and sugar is as high as 80% of the market price. And now the state is starting up bakeries and selling ‘arepas’, a staple Venezuelan breakfast resembling a maize burger.
Thousands of spacious flats are coming up all over Venezuela. The country plans to build three million houses in the next six years and hundreds of thousands have already moved into their new homes. Some of these are in small clusters; others are brand-new cities with their own schools, primary health units, transport, playing fields and even churches. These houses would not look out of place in any European country. But they are for the poor and are massively subsidised. In Caracas, I saw new apartment blocks in prime business districts. It was as if council estates had come up right next to the British museum.
Supporter at October 2 Caracas rally, the largest in Venezuela's history
The list could go on for a while. But three things stood out for me. At a time when retirement ages are being pushed back in Europe, the age for receiving state pensions has been brought forward by two years in Venezuela. It includes even the informal traders. While working rights are under threat in the West, a new labour law in Venezuela makes it harder to dismiss people. No one with a disabled child can be sacked to save costs. Employers who flout the new law face not just fines; they can be imprisoned. This has not caused an economic disaster. The country is growing at close to six per cent and not because of high oil prices alone.
Chavez is also handing real power to the people. Venezuelans by law can form community councils with enormous powers in their local communities. I saw a middle class community council in Merida stall the building of new tower blocks because the developer had damaged a local road. Not even the mayor of the town was able to bail him out. The Venezuela of Hugo Chavez intends to weave these community councils into communes that will have their own socially-owned businesses, local laws, local currencies and a voice in the national state.
This is the new reality of Venezuela. But the new jostles with the old order. I saw very little extreme poverty there but plenty of obscene wealth: glittering new shopping malls, pricey restaurants, fancy electronics and flashy four by fours. The wealthy and the middle class complained of the power of the marginals, as they call the Chavistas. And the Chavista ranks complained about corruption, bureaucracy and the arrogance of many of their local leaders.
What I did not see was a society cowering with fear, as you would expect in a tyranny or in a country overrun by crime. Venezuelans are a happy people; they drink enormous quantities of alcohol and love to play their music full volume on ghetto blasters. They hate wearing seat belts, lane driving or stopping for pedestrians at zebra crossings.
I saw people expressing themselves loud and clear, disagreeing about politics and arguing about the future of their country. Support for the revolution runs deep but so does the hatred of the wealthy and the middle classes. I saw the venom that the private media unleashes every day against the government but I did not see much evidence of censorship. I saw plenty of soldiers on the streets but most of them were unarmed and they were often in the company of civilians. Every day for a month, I saw a country with multiple personalities.
Waiting for Chavez. Exhausted Chavistas, some of whom had travelled overnight for the October 2 rally, take a break from the sun.
The night before leaving, the country was lashed by the tail end of a tropical storm. Just outside Caracas, I was in the house of Tony who I had befriended. Tony is sometimes a tourist guide and an itinerant salesman at other times. We had arranged a party that night but nobody could come. We thought we would get over the disappointment by preparing the many bottles of wonderful Venezuelan rum with cola, crushed ice and lime for the Cuba Libre cocktail. Suddenly, we were interrupted by the frightened yelps of dogs and screams from parrots and the pet monkey. Running out, we saw a part of a hill displaced by the rain heading straight for his home, bringing with it large chunks of rocks. We ran for our lives but by a miracle the landslide stopped before taking down the house.
Wet and shaken, we ventured back into the house. That night, Tony understandably fell silent. I was preparing my excuses to leave the family alone when Tony let out a hearty Venezuelan laugh. “Amigo,” he said, “the house stands. We are alive. And then there is a tomorrow. Shall we put some music on for now and sing to it?”
And the song?Chávez Corazón del Pueblo (Chavez the heart of the people)