Chávez Altered How Venezuela Views Itself, for Good or Ill

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LA GUAIRA, Venezuela -- Ever since her home was washed away in the devastating mudslides that killed thousands along Venezuela's coast in 1999, during President Hugo Chávez's first year in office, Graciela Pineda waited for him to carry out his vow to rebuild.

"It's been 13 years, waiting and waiting, and we've gotten nothing," said Ms. Pineda, 50, who lives as a squatter with eight members of her family, crammed into a derelict apartment in a wasteland of debris and vacant lots in a once tony neighborhood called Los Corales. Across the street, a building leans cracked and crumpled, threatening to tumble onto the road.

And yet Ms. Pineda remained loyal to Mr. Chávez to the end, voting for him again in October when he won another six-year term -- and crying for him on Tuesday when he died.

"Who wouldn't cry for a president like him?" she said. "Everything here was Chávez. He was our country."

Despite a rocky economic record and strings of broken or half-filled promises during his 14 years in office, the fundamental legacy of Mr. Chávez is not made of concrete and steel, highways and houses, but something less tangible: he has changed the way Venezuelans think about themselves and their country.

"He has made people who didn't feel they were part of democracy before feel like they're part of the system," said Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group. "That hasn't happened in very many countries. If you look at the United States, poor people don't feel like they're very much a part of the system, and he did that."

The dynamic was on full display Wednesday as enormous crowds thronged the streets to watch President Hugo Chávez's modest brown wood coffin, covered in a Venezuelan flag, being carried through the capital, Caracas.

As the procession traveled from the hospital where he died to the military academy where he studied as a young, unheralded cadet, tens of thousands of well-wishers -- many dressed in his movement's characteristic red shirts -- chanted, cried, tossed flowers or held up cellphones to photograph the coffin as it passed. The procession stretched for miles, a river of red with drivers trailing behind in an impromptu cortege.

"Chávez opened our eyes," said Carlos Pérez, 58, a cookie salesman who drove into town with his wife and took part in the caravan. "We used to be stepped on. We felt humiliated."

Of course, Mr. Chávez's government made its imprint in material ways as well. It has provided tens of thousands of homes amid a national housing shortage, and as a counterpoint to the neglect here in Los Corales, a small, well-run hospital in a nearby neighborhood called Macuto has become a symbol of rebirth after the 1999 flooding.

A maternity hospital before the mudslides, it has expanded, with more than 200 babies born there each month and doctors performing hundreds of vital operations, including eye and breast cancer surgery. All of its services are free.

But the hospital, one of only three in a state of 352,000 people, is also an example of the contradictions of Mr. Chávez's revolution: it took more than a decade after the tragedy to get it fully back in operation.

"It was very slow," said Dr. Luz Stella Antolinez, the hospital director, who opened the facility in October 2010. "What was missing was the will to get things done."

Still, Dr. Antolinez called Mr. Chávez a historical figure with the stature of Simón Bolívar, the South American independence hero, or even Joan of Arc.

"He changed our consciousness," Dr. Antolinez said. "Venezuela will not go back to what it was. All these millions of people, for 14 years the president spoke to them, now they know they are worth something."

Ideologically, Mr. Chávez was something of a chameleon, taking on and shedding policies and programs as they suited him.

He was a self-described Socialist who expropriated private businesses and property but looked the other way as opportunists enriched themselves off government contracts.

He preached about economic independence and created chains of subsidized grocery stores but neglected agriculture and relied heavily on imported food.

He excoriated capitalists and lectured about service to the country but tolerated or ignored widespread corruption.

He condemned the United States at every turn but depended on it to buy the oil that made his movement possible.

He spoke of a people's right to self-determination but allied himself with tyrants in Libya, Syria and Iran. Mr. Chávez mined and deepened the divide between the masses of Venezuela's poor and the middle and upper classes, presiding over a bitterly divided country. He mercilessly taunted and insulted those who disagreed with him, calling them fascists, good-for-nothings, traitors, oligarchs, reactionaries and puppets of the United States.

And he warned ceaselessly of enemies, inside and outside the country, who he said were poised to take away from the poor the benefits they had received under his government.

Conditions for the poor have certainly improved over the last decade and a half, and the ranks of the poor have shrunk. Government programs have given poor people access to low-cost food and free health care and have knocked down barriers to higher education, though many of those programs are plagued by inefficiencies and long waits for services.

Venezuela has the world's largest reserves of crude oil, and the economy rises and falls with the oil industry. When Mr. Chávez first took office, oil was selling for less than $10 a barrel. This year it has sold for about $100.

Those oil riches have fueled his movement, but critics say that his policies, including the expropriation of private companies and price controls, have hobbled the economy, led to shortages of basic goods and created a system that cannot be sustained. Oil production has stagnated, and the state-run oil company has failed to make the enormous investments needed to increase it. A huge explosion at a refinery in August killed dozens of people and raised questions about maintenance and safety.

Investment in other crucial areas of the economy, including the electrical network, has been deficient and in much of the country there are regular power failures. Roads and bridges are in bad shape, bottlenecks at ports are common and, despite the sustained increase in oil prices, the country has the lowest cumulative rate of economic growth among the seven largest economies in South America since 1999, according to data from the United Nations.

Mr. Chávez named his movement after his hero, Bolívar, and vowed to created what he called 21st-century socialism. But exactly what that is can be hard to define.

"There's not a lot of ideological coherence in Chavismo," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group. "It is a mood, a sensibility, a real rejection of the traditional political order, a concern for greater social justice, greater participation by those who are excluded."

Mr. Chávez prided himself on winning election after election, and his government put in place a digital voting system that is considered generally free of fraud. His opponents called Venezuela's elections free but not fair, pointing to huge government resources spent on Mr. Chávez's campaigns.

Mr. Chávez also did away with the democratic separation of powers. A pliant legislature granted him the power to dictate laws on his own. And he dominated the judiciary, where loyal judges dependably ruled in his favor. He used government-run television and radio stations as part of a powerful propaganda machine and forced the country's most-viewed broadcaster, RCTV, which vigorously promoted an opposition agenda, off the air.

The corollary to Mr. Chávez's aggressive advocacy for the poor at home was his attack on the hemisphere's richest nation, the United States.

With a defiant anti-imperialist discourse, he injected energy into a sector of the Latin American left and led a group of nations, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia, with leftist governments dedicated to diminishing American influence. And he helped form and strengthen broader regional groups, like Unasur, an organization of South American nations, that stressed Latin American identity and tilted the balance further away from the United States.

Meanwhile, this coastal city continues to struggle on its long road to recovery from the 1999 mudslides. Two large waterfront hotels that once provided hundreds of jobs and drew millions of tourism dollars have never reopened. The latest rescue plan, to rehab them in time for the South American Beach Games, scheduled to take place here in December, was recently abandoned, according to local news reports. For many, their permanently vacant rooms are yet another symbol of broken promises. But for others, they are an unlikely sign of Mr. Chávez's empowerment of the poor and his rejection of an international order dominated by the rich.

Benjamín José Astudillo, 50, whose family runs a small restaurant on the beach, near a small stretch of sand that was once reserved for guests of the Sheraton, said Mr. Chávez wanted the beach to be for Venezuelans, not "the gringos." He added, "The gringos aren't going to come here anymore."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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