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<nettime> Participatory Democracy in Venezuela
Craig Brozefsky on Sun, 22 Dec 2002 07:54:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Participatory Democracy in Venezuela


Chaos and Constitution

With his country teetering on the brink of disaster, Venezuela's Hugo 
Chavez clings to power -- thanks primarily to the passionate support 
of the nation's poor.

By Barry C. Lynn
January/February 2003 Issue

The populist former paratrooper has mobilized Venezuela's poor to 
participate in their own government

You can buy a plastic-bound copy of the Venezuelan Constitution for 
60 cents, a leather-clad copy for $3, a coffee-table edition for $5. 
Not that you really need a copy of your own, since someone standing 
near you on the subway in Caracas will have one in his pocket. Or you 
can always listen to one of the ongoing debates at a downtown park. 
"Look at this article," someone will shout, and a half dozen people 
will flip through the constitution's 35,000 words and 350 articles to 
find the pertinent passage. "Yes," someone else will cry out. "But 
this one here is more to the point."

Leila Escobar, a lab technician in her early 30s, carries a 
pocket-size copy of the new constitution, bound in blue plastic. I 
meet her late one morning in Nueva Grenada, a grimy, run-down 
neighborhood in the Venezuelan capital, and the mid-October day is 
unseasonably hot. As a passing cloud offers relief, Escobar pauses to 
wipe the sweat from her face with a red handkerchief. She has walked 
seven miles already, near the head of a march by hundreds of 
thousands who have come out in support of President Hugo Chavez. It 
has been six months since Chavez was ousted briefly in a coup, and 
now his opponents -- business leaders, a handful of military 
officers, almost all of the nation's media -- are once again trying 
to orchestrate his removal. So Escobar and other chavistas have taken 
to the streets, vowing to protect the president -- with their bodies, 
if necessary.

The reason for their support has everything to do with the little 
blue book Escobar carries. In one of his first acts as president, 
Chavez held a nationwide referendum on the constitution that 
effectively redrew the political boundaries of Venezuela from the 
ground up. Over the past four years, through a series of new laws and 
programs, he has mobilized the poor to participate in what had always 
been a top-down, two-party political system dominated by the 
country's upper and middle classes. "The president has brought us 
hope, and he has brought us democracy," says Escobar. "They will not 
take him from us."

...[D]espite the widespread economic misery, what upsets Escobar most 
is that Venezuela's rich want Chavez out of power, now. Chavez, she 
says, is the only leader who has ever cared for Venezuela's poor. 
"The rich have always had so much, and we, nothing," she explains as 
thousands of marchers -- mostly of mestizo or African descent -- 
surge past, blowing whistles, singing, waving flags. "Now Chavez 
wants the rich still to have, but us too, a little."

Since the demonstration in October, tensions in Venezuela have 
escalated to the brink of civil war. A nationwide general strike, 
called by Chàvez opponents, has stretched into its third week. Almost 
every day, it seems, some sort of protest disrupts life in Caracas -- 
mass demonstrations, street riots, clashes between government 
supporters and Chàvez critics. In recent weeks, Chàvez has ordered 
the military to take over oil tankers whose crews refused to deliver 
their cargo, and the Bush administration has weighed in, calling for 
early elections. For the United States, the stakes in this struggle 
are high. Venezuela is America's fourth-largest supplier of oil, 
providing nearly 15 percent of all U.S. imports. With the Bush 
administration authorized to wage a war in Iraq that could 
destabilize oil supplies in the Middle East, Venezuela's importance 
to the U.S. economy can scarcely be overstated. "We are married to 
Venezuela, for better or worse," says Stephen Johnson, a Latin 
America analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Yet Venezuela's government remains in the hands of a man who has 
become one of the most vocal -- and effective -- opponents of U.S. 
interests abroad. Chavez, with his red berets and revolutionary 
rhetoric, does far more than talk and dress the role of a second 
Castro. In 1999, he banned U.S. aircraft from flying over Venezuela 
to patrol for drugs in neighboring Colombia. A year later, he 
undercut efforts to isolate Iraq by becoming the first head of state 
since the Gulf War to visit Saddam Hussein, whom he called "a 
brother." He took the lead in rejuvenating OPEC, convincing member 
nations to slash production and thereby quadruple the price of oil. 
And he has stalled U.S. efforts to enact the Free Trade Area of the 
Americas, slowing negotiations that would extend the provisions of 
NAFTA throughout the hemisphere.

Given Chavez's record, it was scarcely a surprise that the Bush 
administration was quick to recognize what it demurely called the 
"change of government" in Caracas last April, when Chavez was 
temporarily removed from office. After a protest march outside the 
Miraflores presidential palace erupted in a shoot-out that left 19 
dead, the military abruptly placed Chavez under arrest. It soon 
became clear that high-ranking officials in the Bush administration 
had been in close contact with those plotting the coup -- including 
Pedro Carmona, the Venezuelan businessman who briefly replaced 
Chavez. But international pressure, coupled with massive 
demonstrations by the poor, returned Chavez to office within two 

If Chavez is ousted, however, it will not be because he is a brutal 
dictator....Opposition political parties, as well as the press, 
operate freely in Venezuela, and the federal police -- once among the 
most feared forces in South America -- have not hindered even those 
advocating outright rebellion. And for the first time in Venezuelan 
history, ordinary citizens are being encouraged to create and elect 
local councils, to work with local officials to improve their 
neighborhoods, to get directly involved in their government. Acting 
together, these are the people who have become the single most 
powerful group in Venezuela. These are the people who, in many ways, 
have made themselves the real sovereigns of Venezuela's oil.

A few days after the chavista rally, I climb a mountainside to Hoyo 
de la Puerta, one of the shantytowns that ring Caracas. Here, on 
either side of a highway, raw brick houses with green corrugated 
roofs cut into high coastal rainforests that are home to foxes and 
sloths, snakes and hummingbirds. Some residents work in the city, 
some grow avocados and oranges, many are unemployed.

Rosa de Peña moved her family of eight here in 1972, when the 
government bulldozed her oceanside house to clear space for an 
airport runway. Chavez has provided many neighborhoods with 
government funds to build sewers, open clinics, and teach residents 
to read, but the residents of Hoyo de la Puerta are long accustomed 
to making do on their own. As de Peña, now 75, makes her way down an 
eroded pathway in her three-inch heels, brown flowered dress, and 
tinkling steel necklace, she eagerly points out the many small works 
of her neighbors. Here, a family poured concrete on a steep stretch 
of path. Here, people strung electric lines through the trees to 
their homes. Here, a man built a house entirely of stone gathered in 
the valley below. But at a tiny creek, where seven-year-old Raquel 
Josefina Pérez bathes, de Peña's pride fails her. After years of 
promises by local officials, the neighborhood still has no fresh 
water, and its 500 children must still make do with sharing 120 desks 
in a tiny, windowless school. That's why Raquel is here at ten 
o'clock in the morning on a school day. "She does not fit," de Peña 

...[W]hen people gather in neighborhoods like Hoyo de la Puerta, the 
talk seldom centers on the price of food or the lack of health care. 
Instead, what excites them is the new constitution, drafted by a 
popularly elected assembly in 1999 and approved by an overwhelming 
vote in December of that year. A somewhat haphazard amalgam, the 
document protects minority rights, permits people to claim title to 
their farms and homes, and expands political participation at the 
grassroots level. De Peña, for example, is particularly excited by a 
new law that gives citizens the right to take part in the kind of 
urban planning that drove her from her home 30 years ago. "Before, 
the government could come and do whatever they wanted to us," she 
says, pulling a newsprint copy of the law from her purse and waving 
it about. "But this paper gives the community a voice. This law 
forces the authorities to listen."

The issue of land ownership, especially, inspires poor residents to 
praise Chavez. As is true of about half the people of Caracas, most 
here do not hold legal title to the houses in which they live, or to 
the lots underneath. Some say they bought their land years ago. 
Others admit they simply took the land and built on it. Now, a new 
law permits them to "regularize" their ownership by registering their 

Indelgard Vargas, an unemployed engineer and father of two small 
children, says land ownership is partly a matter of self-respect. "It 
is better to own a little plot," he says, "than to trespass on a 
great expanse." But it also has practical consequences. For the first 
time, the poor will be able to sell their lots, protect them in 
court, or mortgage them with a bank. Chavez, the revolutionary, 
promises to make the poor into property owners -- and, in the 
process, he has already given them a sense of entitlement as 
citizens. "How can you demand service from the mayor when you don't 
pay property taxes?" says Vargas. "And how can you pay any taxes if 
you don't own any property?"

Hugo Chavez burst into Venezuelan politics in 1992 very much 
uninvited, as the mastermind of a coup attempt that saw tanks roll 
right to the gates of Miraflores. Chavez, at the time a 38-year-old 
colonel, coordinated a nationwide military uprising against 
then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had implemented an austerity 
program that seemed to fall hardest on the poor. The government 
quickly put down the rebellion, which left 70 dead, and Chavez 
surrendered within hours, asking only that he be granted a chance to 
speak to his supporters over national television. The time for 
revolution would come, he promised them: "New possibilities will 
arise again, and the country will be able to move forward to a better 
future." On screen for less than a minute, his rough-hewn manner and 
straight talk captured the public's imagination, and he emerged a 

Two years in prison only buffed Chavez's image, as did his efforts to 
embrace civilian-style politics and to stuff his stout frame into a 
business suit. His 56 percent showing in the 1998 presidential 
election set a record, but it was his 80 percent popularity rating 
that stunned Venezuela's political establishment. There are many 
reasons why most of the country's elite have come to hate 
Chavez....Yet much of the hatred for Chavez arises from visceral 
class antipathy. The son of small-town schoolteachers, Chavez is a 
powerfully built mestizo with a wide, almost meaty face and thick 
hands. He's the sort of man that upper-class Venezuelans expect to 
see hauling sacks of concrete at a construction site or driving a 
bus, not running the country. Many refuse even to sit in the same 
room as Chavez, let alone debate the details of macroeconomic policy 
or how to divvy up scarce state funds.

For anyone who knew Venezuela during the years of the oil boom, as I 
did as a foreign correspondent during the late 1980s, the current 
level of political polarization is shocking. For three decades after 
the last dictator fell in 1958, the country was often held up as 
Latin America's model democracy. There were two powerful political 
parties, both with a strong base of support among the upper and 
middle classes, both able to rally large masses of the poor via 
well-honed patronage systems. It was, everyone liked to say, just 
like the United States.

This system served the country's elite well, rewarding them with 
highly lucrative monopolies in everything from beer bottling to food 
canning to domestic airlines. It also did well by the millions of 
immigrants who came from Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the 1930s and 
1950s. These people managed most of Venezuela's industries and 
service companies, and filled most professional positions. And when 
the big oil dollars started flowing in the early 1970s, it was a 
system that organized one of the longest-running fiestas of the 20th 
century. Awash in a seeming sea of money, Venezuelan elites built 
themselves wide highways, a sparkling subway, a glittering array of 
office towers and luxury apartments, a beautiful national theater. 
They imported great chefs, danced in glamorous clubs, vacationed in 
Paris, annexed large chunks of Miami. Jeep Wagoneers, bottles of 
Johnny Walker Black, kilos of French cheese -- all were heavily 
subsidized with public money.

In February 1989, the era of black gold came to a sudden, violent 
end. Oil prices had been falling for years, and everyone knew the 
party had to slow. But when the Pérez government tried to pass much 
of the bill on to the country's poor through higher bus fares and 
bread prices, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. At first the 
mobs burned buses, then they looted and burned stores, then they 
looted the apartments and houses of anyone who seemed to have more. 
Scores died in battles among neighbors. And when the army came, many 
hundreds more were shot down. Yet thousands of people refused to go 
home, even after soldiers opened fire with automatic rifles. In some 
neighborhoods, mobs armed only with sticks and rocks repeatedly 
charged ranks of terrified soldiers trucked in from the countryside. 
No one knows exactly how many people died, but many estimates put the 
total at well over 1,000. "The Caracazo," as the riot was called, was 
the single bloodiest uprising in Latin America in the last half 

By taking to the streets, however, Venezuela's poor became a force 
that had to be reckoned with. What Chavez has done, through the new 
constitution, is to start a process of formalizing and solidifying 
their political power, channeling their anger through political 
institutions rather than the streets. "Venezuela is a time bomb that 
can explode at any moment," Chavez said when the constitution was 
approved. "It is our task, through the power of the vote, to defuse 
it now." Chavez threatens Venezuela's elite because he wants to turn 
the mob of February 1989 into what he likes to call el soberano -- 
"the sovereign citizen." Which is reason enough, in a country where 
the poor and working class form a solid majority of the voting 
population, for the elite to want Chavez out....

Democratic Action and COPEI, the two political parties that long 
dominated Venezuelan politics, have all but collapsed in recent 
years, and opponents of Chavez now have no real leaders or political 
platform. What they have is money, and they are voting with their 
bank accounts and passports. Since Chavez took office, tens of 
thousands of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans have fled the 
country, many to the United States. Last year they were on pace to 
remove an estimated $8 billion from the economy -- a staggering 8 
percent of the annual gross domestic product.

They also control the media. All of Venezuela's private television 
stations and national newspapers are owned by the opposition, and all 
are employed to deliver an unadulterated flow of anti-Chavez 
propaganda in the form of news, popular music, even soap operas. The 
distortions can be dramatic. Today's anti-Chavez march is covered by 
all four TV channels from five in the morning until midnight. The 
pro-Chavez march three days later -- though twice as large -- is 
ignored entirely by three of the channels, and covered only 
sporadically by the fourth. (The American media also played up the 
anti-Chavez march, inflating its turnout to a million.) The marchers 
and the media are demanding that a popular referendum on the 
president be held immediately. They also call on European courts to 
indict him for crimes against humanity, as Spain did with Pinochet.

It is this charge of repression that most infuriates Chavez's 
supporters. Not a single leader of the April coup, they note, is in 
jail, even though some of them continue to openly advocate his 
overthrow. Not so long ago, the same could not be said for many of 
the poor who spoke out against Venezuela's old regime. Even at the 
height of the good times, the country's democracy was a preserve of 
the upper and middle classes, and it was protected at gunpoint. 
Anyone who tried to oppose the government from outside the two-party 
system ran a risk of being arrested, beaten, or killed by the 
National Guard or the federal police known as the DISIP. The DISIP 
sported black leather jackets and tall black boots, and the attire 
was more than a fashion statement.

Juan Contreras was a college student in the 1980s. He was also a 
member of a left-wing party considered "subversive" by the 
government. The DISIP and the National Guard routinely broke into his 
apartment -- 46 times in all, he says. Often they arrested him; 
sometimes they beat him. These days, Contreras places his faith in 
community organizing rather than party politics. A 39-year-old social 
worker, he travels around Venezuela to help poor farmers claim title 
to their land. He also leads a left-oriented group in the 23 de Enero 
housing project, a collection of immense and decrepit apartment 
blocks that rise on hills just west of the presidential palace. The 
group polices the projects at night, raises money to make needed 
repairs, and helps the elderly get medicine. "It has been years since 
any political party did anything for us," says Contreras. "We have to 
fight for our community by ourselves, every day."

Contreras doesn't expect much in the way of material help from the 
government -- but he is grateful to Chavez for calling off the 
police. The DISIP no longer visit his house, nor do they break up 
public meetings at the housing project as they did in the past. The 
president, Contreras says, has created a political environment in 
which the poor can assemble without fear of reprisals. On this day, a 
group of neighbors at 23 de Enero has organized a dance to raise 
money to fix an elevator in the 14-story Apartment Block 28. "For the 
first time," Contreras says, "we can breathe."...

At the local level, the new constitution encourages poor communities 
to create district councils to decide neighborhood affairs. Venezuela 
has no tradition of electing councils that are open to all parties -- 
or to people of no party -- so building them means starting at the 
very bottom. In the neighborhood of Petare, which includes some of 
the poorest and most violent barrios in Caracas, Alejandrina Reyes is 
going door to door with a small team of city workers and student 
volunteers. The goal is to speak with every adult in each district of 
roughly 3,000 people, to explain how residents can elect a council of 
12 representatives. "It takes two months or more of almost full-time 
attention to get one community ready to vote," Reyes says. "And we've 
only been working with the easy communities, the ones where people 
have already set up associations and cooperatives." Then she smiles. 
"It's slow, but the word is really getting out."

One of the first to heed the call was Gloria Baroso. Only 40, Baroso 
has six children and four grandchildren, and has been on her own 
since her husband left home seven years ago. She runs a cooperative 
bakery in the El Carmen section of Petare, and also helps out as a 
nurse when people in the community take sick. Now she holds a seat on 
the new district council.

Baroso knows that before Chavez, it would have been unthinkable for a 
single mother who bakes bread for a living to hold elected office in 
Venezuela. In the street in front of the cooperative, she wipes her 
hands on her apron and sighs. Even before she joined the council, she 
had too much to do. "But it's worth it," she says. Already, she has 
seen a profound change. "The Venezuelan people are not the same 
people they were even a few years ago," she says. "We know our 
rights. And no matter what the rich do to Chavez, this is something 
they can never erase."  What do you think?

Barry C. Lynn lived and worked in Venezuela in the late 1980s during 
the last years of the oil boom as a staff reporter for Agence 


Craig Brozefsky <craig {AT} red-bean.com>
Free Scheme/Lisp Software  http://www.red-bean.com/~craig

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