- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sharon Behn reported this story from Venezuela from Aug. 26 to Sept. 16.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Flush with oil money and political power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is firmly implanting his socialist — and anti-American — vision at home and buying influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A former paratrooper who spent time in prison for leading a failed 1992 coup, Mr. Chavez delights in portraying himself as the Latin American counter to the United States, a modern-day Simon Bolivar — the 19th-century Venezuelan-born general who freed the region from Spanish rule.

He calls the United States a “terrorist state,” has ended exchanges with the U.S. military and sold off Venezuelan financial assets in the United States.

“The United States is the champion of double standards. The United States government defends terrorism,” Mr. Chavez said at the United Nations last month, while calling on the world body to move its headquarters to another nation.

“They talk of the fight against the terrorism, but they commit terrorism, state terrorism,” he said.

In Venezuela, he appeals to impoverished masses with free education, health care and other social programs funded by his nation’s oil wealth.

That, plus a populist message that stokes widespread poor vs. rich resentment, makes him untouchable at the polls.

Mr. Chavez was freely elected to office in 1998 and reconfirmed in the 2004 referendum. He insists that everything he does is in accordance with the new constitution, also approved by voters during his tenure.

A close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, he supplies other nations in the Andean and Caribbean region with oil at below-market prices, a largesse he believes will bring him closer to his Bolivarian dream of a united greater Caribbean region — with him at the helm.

“He is a revolutionary that wants to resuscitate an epoch that no longer exists,” said political analyst Manuel Felipe Sierra.

“He wants to take on Castro’s mantle as the anti-U.S. leader in Latin America, except that he is younger, and he has oil during an energy crisis. Oil is a political tool,” said Mr. Sierra.

Mr. Chavez turned 51 in July.

At home, his government is taking over land and infrastructure after declaring age-old property deeds invalid or areas underproductive, broadening central control of the judiciary, the economy and the military.

To his critics, Mr. Chavez is leading a militaristic left-wing “social revolution” that is ripping his nation apart.

Politics — and the future of oil-rich Venezuela after decades of right-wing pro-business rule — has become a bitter feud, and Mr. Chavez appears to be winning.

He projects a relaxed, chummy approach, especially during his weekly television show “Alo Presidente,” where he can appear one week dressed as a physician and the next in a finely tailored suit.

For example, he kicked off one recent show by announcing that he is opening a military hospital to the public, emphasizing that even the nurses and hospital workers had not been able to receive medical attention there before.

It is the kind of populist dig against former governments that ignored the underprivileged, which has won him adoring support among the country’s poor.

“Life has changed a lot,” says Benedicta Garcia, 59, who displays Mr. Chavez’s framed picture on the wall of her tiny concrete house, right next to the pope and Simon Bolivar.

“Before, we had to go to a hospital, and it would take all day and night, just to lower a fever,” says Mrs. Garcia, who runs a government-funded soup kitchen for about 170 people, most of them children, from her home.

“Now, when one of my grandsons was sick, they cured him, and I didn’t have to pay for a bus, and the doctor is very nice. They come to the house if you need them,” she adds, picking through a red plastic basin of black beans that would be served out to the neighborhood the next day.

U.S.-trained economist Alejandro Grisanti says, two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.

Rich and poor

Caracas, a city of high-rises, shopping malls and wealthy Spanish-style houses ringed by soaring green mountains — is scarred by miles of hillside shantytowns.

For the residents of these jumbled burrows of brick and cement, poor access to health care, jobs and food has been a way of life for decades.

The benefits of years of pro-U.S., market-oriented economic policies never quite made it to the “barrios.”

Then along came Mr. Chavez with his fiery anti-capitalist speeches, his vision of a social revolution and a national budget awash with oil dollars to carry it all out.

Venezuela, a prominent member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), is the biggest oil producer in the Western Hemisphere and a key supplier of petroleum to the United States.

Critics of Mr. Chavez accuse him of creating a left-wing, oil-dependent military oligarchy to replace an old right-wing, oil-dependent oligarchy.

They say the slums are havens for drug smugglers, gunrunners and violent gangs, and that Marxist rhetoric resounds off the rooftops.

“What is happening here is ‘Matrix Reloaded.’ We’ve seen this picture before,” says Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of the wealthy Caracas neighborhood of Chacao, referring to a popular movie that features a battle between good and evil.

There is no long-term sustainable investment, he argues. Instead, there is merely government largess, “a distribution of wealth, generated by oil, by the state to society.”

Thanks to the close relationship between Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro, about 15,000 Cuban doctors live in slums around Venezuela, providing free medical care, dedicating their afternoons to house calls.

The soup-kitchen program and the Cuban doctor project are but two examples of oil-funded social-welfare efforts by Mr. Chavez.

Free literacy classes have been an enormous success.

Teary senior citizens, proudly able to read for the first time in their lives, have had a huge emotional effect among those who felt pushed aside by previous governments.

There are subsidized pharmacies and subsidized community supermarkets, called Mercal, for those who cannot afford the abundance of local and imported goods available to those of means.

And just so poor Venezuelans don’t forget who gave them all this bounty, each bag of corn flour, sugar and beans has an article of Venezuela’s new constitution printed on it, with cheery mottoes such as, “Now our resources are being invested in the people.”

Even Mr. Chavez’s adversaries acknowledge that the medical, food and literacy programs are a good first step. For his supporters, Mr. Chavez is a hero.

“If they kill that man, there will be blood,” says Mrs. Garcia, referring to a recent call — later retracted — by evangelist Pat Robertson for U.S. forces to assassinate Mr. Chavez.

Patiently watching men shouldering large bags of free potatoes and vegetables up the steep concrete stairs from the road to her house and soup kitchen, she says: “We love our president. We will give our lives for him.”

Angry landowners

That adoration stops at the doorsteps of landowners, whose property is being taken away under a veneer of constitutional legitimacy and handed over to landless peasants, of activists jailed as political prisoners for daring to challenge Mr. Chavez and his political backers, and of the small, emergent middle class.

“He is a disgraceful dog,” says Pedro, who runs a small company outside the city of Valencia. He asked that his last name be withheld.

“I hope the Americans get us out of this mess. Look at him, giving oil away, when we have so much poverty here,” he says, pointing out straggly villages alongside a potholed road running across the ranch country in eastern Venezuela.

Labor leader Saul Lozano Contreras, 48, is one such victim of Mr. Chavez’s “revolution.”

His spine is a nightmare of lesions and damaged disks that he says was caused by repeated beatings. He has spent the past year in an all-tiled hospital room in the border town of San Cristobal, in extreme pain.

At first handcuffed to the bed, Mr. Lozano is now allowed to pace between two beds. A TV, boxes of medication and a cell phone make up the rest of his life.

“I am a political prisoner because I think differently than the government of Chavez,” he says, after a brief meeting with Caracas-based opposition journalist Patricia Poleo, who leads the fight for the rights of Venezuela’s political prisoners.

Mr. Lozano is a die-hard labor leader who studied in the United States, Israel and Russia and led the worker movement in western Venezuela until his arrest in 2003.

He is on month 29 of a six-year sentence for supporting an unsuccessful April 11, 2002, coup against Mr. Chavez.

“I fought hardL; I fought a lot of corruption, in the local government … I was an object they had to eliminate,” he says. “I never did anything that makes me deserve being in jail.”

Mr. Lozano’s case is currently before the Organization of American States.

Mr. Chavez denies that the country has any political prisoners, but those who visibly stood up against him in the coup or in the subsequent referendum on his leadership have found themselves either in jail, out of a job or hard-pressed to get a bank loan.

Big-time cattle ranchers, part of the country’s elite, have found themselves targeted in a land-expropriation campaign that is spreading to smaller holdings.

Government entities are questioning their deeds, taking away land and distributing them to landless “campesinos.”

Land grab

Ranchers complain that the land grab is being carried out without due process. The government insists it is following the constitutionally backed revolution championed by Mr. Chavez.

Now, any property or plant considered by the government to be “unproductive” or “underproductive” is open to being taken over.

“It sets a very bad precedent because this is private property,” says a 34-year-old Argelino, a veterinarian from Maracaibo, in northwest Venezuela. “Anyone who has a house or land can have it taken. And they are not impartial. They are biased.”

Political opposition to Mr. Chavez is fractured. Members of the opposition parties concede that their organizations are badly organized and underfunded.

So far, even the Primero Justicia (First Justice) opposition party, which is ready to back a rival presidential candidate next year, does not have a clear alternative political and economic platform.

Mr. Lopez, the mayor of the Caracas neighborhood of Chacao, warns of the dangers of Mr. Chavez’s tightening his economic and political stranglehold over the country.

“What we are seeing is the progressive control of the state over the economy and over society” by a government that is increasingly military in its profile and its demeanor, yet operates under a civilian constitution, says Mr. Lopez, a handsome young graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a member of the First Justice party.

Bureaucratic control is growing. A foreigner changing money at a bank, instead of on the black market, has to submit two sets of thumbprints and several sets of papers.

Anyone wanting a restaurant receipt has to write down his ID number.

Wary of tightening secret police control, some Venezuelans have several sets of phones — at least one of them untraceable.

“It is harder to prove a degree on intimidation that I feel is growing through the country. Those that feel fear are not willing to admit it publicly,” says Maria Corina Machado, who works for the civil rights watchdog group Sumate.

The economy is still growing. Shopping malls with the latest fashions and world-class restaurants are packed. Plenty of new sport utility vehicles are on the road, and tourists still flock to beautiful island beaches off the coast.

Economic and political analysts warn that oil-funded welfare programs — while popular and necessary — are not creating lasting economic structures the country needs to sustain growth when oil revenues eventually dry up.

Parallel military

Mr. Chavez has established a 2-million-strong national reserve force that parallels the military, and some say it could counter the military.

He has consolidated control of the judiciary and legislative assembly, and he is centralizing economic control and creating a government-dependent population, critics warn.

Mr. Sierra, the political analyst, says that communist groups working in the shantytowns are providing badly needed services, but he points out “that comes with an indoctrination process and an increasing level of militarism.”

One older woman who fled communism in her native China 50 years ago to settle in Venezuela, when asked about Mr. Chavez’s ambitions, retorted: “We voted for a change, not a revolution.”

Mr. Chavez’s foreign policy has taken a sharp anti-U.S. turn.

And because Venezuela is the fourth-largest provider of oil to the United States and the fifth-largest producer worldwide, Mr. Chavez feels free to say whatever he pleases.

In an apparent push to increase its leverage over the United States, the Venezuelan government is searching for new export markets while consolidating ties with Cuba, China, India, Iran and other Latin American countries.

It also is reconsidering current oil exploration and production contracts with large private U.S. oil companies and considering awarding them to non-U.S. firms.

Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez told The Washington Times that Venezuela was distributing below-cost oil to Cuba and the Caribbean while signing a series of agreements with China in the oil and agricultural sectors.

Economist Manuel Ochoa says there is concern that Mr. Chavez is “preparing the oil sector for a potential conflict with the United States.”

But Mr. Rodriguez rejects that characterization. “We are part of OPEC, and one of the definitions of OPEC is not to use oil as a political weapon,” he says.

But, the foreign minister adds, “in the case of armed aggression against Venezuela,” all bets are off.

The oil weapon

Mr. Chavez recently threatened to cut off Venezuela’s oil flow to the United States if Washington were to invade the Latin American nation.

“Relations with China are excellent,” Mr. Rodriguez said in a recent interview in his office in Caracas.

China has signed agreements to invest in the exploration and production of Venezuelan oil and gas.

China’s ambassador to Venezuela recently told a local newspaper that his country was not importing Venezuelan oil because of the distance between the two countries meant that China was not its natural market.

But Mr. Ochoa says, “There is talk of building a pipeline through Colombia to the Pacific. We would lose a lot of money because of the transshipment, but trade and economic concerns are secondary to the ideological, geopolitical and regional leadership of Hugo Chavez.”

“Chavez is using all this to become independent of the U.S. and develop a more aggressive foreign policy,” says the Oxford-educated economist, who now teaches in Caracas’ Catholic University. “He is using oil as a weapon of diplomacy.”

Mr. Rodriguez insists that tensions between Caracas and Washington were just a misunderstanding.

“The problems that are upsetting both countries should not exist, because there are substantial common interests,” he says.

“The major problem, in my opinion, is rooted in the deep misunderstanding that exists in the dominant circle of the U.S. administration over the political process in Venezuela.”

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