>First published on BlogCritics on 6 June 2009
Hugo Chávez became the President of Venezuela (now renamed the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela") in 1999. He was reelected to the post in 2002 and again in 2006. The Venezuelan Constitution was recently amended to permit him to run for an additional term of six years, in 2012.
At an improvised Cabinet meeting held outdoors in a plaza on Caracas' east side, Chavez signed the amendment that will allow him to run for another six-year term in 2012.
"I'm ready to continue commanding the revolution from 2009 at least until 2019, if the people want me to," the leftist president said, having promoted the amendment with the argument that only his permanence in power could guarantee the survival of the process of change that he has led since February 1999. (emphasis added)
A Constitutional amendment to permit him to run for additional terms had been defeated on 2 December 2007. Prior to the vote on a second referendum to approve an additional term, an editorial in the Washington Post noted:
In theory, advocates of democracy in Venezuela might welcome this referendum as a way to decisively stop Mr. Chávez's attempt to turn the country into a 21st-century Cuba. The problem is that elections in Venezuela are no longer free and fair. Mr. Chávez has turned national television into a state propaganda outlet, and the Miami Herald reported Sunday that the government spent tens of millions of dollars to buy votes in the recent state and local elections. The state election authority, which is controlled by Mr. Chávez's loyalists, delayed the announcement of his defeat in last year's referendum [also on Constitutional changes]; reliable sources say the president conceded only after he was told by military commanders that they would not put down protests against a falsified result. The official results, showing the margin of Mr. Chávez's loss, have not been released. (emphasis added)
El Presidente Chávez has worked ceaselessly and with exceptional vigor to bring tremendous changes to Venezuela; he may believe that his changes have been good for the country, and some other Venezuelans apparently, even now, accept that as well.
Some of the changes have involved land reform: taking land used in "socially wasteful" ways and putting it under the wise ownership and control of those (in some cases his own family members) whom he possibly believes will do better for the country than did the former owners. Recently, five large farms comprising a total of 10,305 hectares (roughly 25,000 acres) were taken, El Presidente Chávez observing that "There is no private land." The Venezuelan government has said that the seizures of large rural estates and poorly used land will continue, "in order to achieve a self-sufficient food supply." Nevertheless, such seizures in the past, involving more than 5.4 million acres of farmland, have produced few if any noticeably positive results for Venezuela.
The 32,000-acre(12,950-hectare) El Charcote Ranch in central Venezuela was meant as a showcase for President Hugo Chavez's agrarian revolution, turning a country with food shortages and runaway inflation into one that could feed itself. But since troops and peasants seized the land from a British agribusiness company four years ago, beef production has dropped from 2.6 million pounds (1.2 million kilograms) annually to zero. The ranch and many like it across the country raise the concern that the dream of a Venezuela living off its own land is just one more socialist promise heavy on rhetoric and light on results. The Chavez government says it has taken over more than 5.4 million acres (2.2 million hectares) of farmland from private owners. Yet food imports have tripled since 2004, the year before Chavez began his aggressive reform program.
Even some Chavez fans are complaining, like Luis Emiro Gomez, 53, who lives in a shack of corrugated sheets patched with Chavez campaign posters. Gomez said he lacks credit, tools and sufficient water to increase his corn harvest. While he holds a government permit for his plot, he said many others who received land are well-off and have rented it to tenant farmers for profit.
''If the idea was for parcels to be for the peasants, why are they offering them to people who aren't needy?'' Gomez asked.
Telecommunications giant CANTV;
Electricidad de Caracas;
Power company Seneca;
Three cement producers, which together produced nearly all of the cement sold in the country;
Four heavy oil fields in the Orinoco Basin, worked by a total of 13 companies;
Steelmaker Thermium Sidor;
Sixty-four Oil field service companies, 39 of them at Lake Maracaibo;
In February this year, El Presidente ordered the military to occupy rice processing companies owned by Alimentos Polar;
Rice and pasta production plants owned by Cargill, one of the seven largest grain companies in the world; and
Ports at Maracaibo and Puerto Cabello, both of them in states under opposition control.
When El Presidente nationalized the country's oil industry, he gave as his principal reason that it was contributing insufficiently to his vast social spending programs; nationalization was seen as critical to furtherance of the social goals on the basis of which he had been elected. Oil industry infrastructure investment has been cut by almost forty percent and most of the skilled employees are no longer there. Consequently, the infrastructure is deteriorating.
El Presidente imposed price controls on many domestically produced goods, such as rice, because he said that the prices were too high. The prices are now somewhat lower, but there is very little rice and much it has to be imported; critical shortages of corn, a principal ingredient of tacos and other Venezuelan food staples as well as of cattle feed, have also been experienced. The substantial shortage of hard currency, discussed below, makes importation very difficult. The same is true of most other basic needs of the Venezuelan people.
Prices for home appliances have skyrocketed, pharmacies are reporting shortages of drugs, and General Motors is planning to stop car production here next month, as measures by the Venezuelan government to conserve dollars ripple through the weakening economy.
"Today, there's no milk, no rice, no beans, no chicken, no meat, no butter and no cooking oil," Francisco Quintero said as he shopped at a government store that sells subsidized staples for the poor.
The government increased the price of sugar by 35 percent last week, however, and is facing pressure to raise prices for other subsidized goods as well. A Mercal manager in a poor working neighborhood in western Caracas said that this was only the first of the increases.
"We're expecting the government to raise prices for rice, milk, meat and chicken by 40 percent," said Marlon Barragan, who manages a Mercal in Catia. He said that the prices "will still be low." The only question is whether the goods will be available.
El Presidente has devalued the Venezuelan currency which, when I was first in Venezuela in 1997, traded at about three Bolivars to the dollar. In 2008, Venezuela introduced a new currency, the "Strong Bolivar" or Bolivar Fuerte; one thousand Bolivars were exchanged for one BF. The new "strong" currency now trades at an official rate of 2.15 BF to the dollar and at an unofficial (black market) rate of 6.7 BF to the dollar. Foreign travel (by those few outside the Government who can still afford it) has become much more expensive. The problem is being attacked by making it very difficult to obtain hard currency. Venezuelan banks, in order to avoid late payment charges — to the banks due to their own delays, rather than due to late payments by their customers — on credit cards which they issue, have essentially ceased to honor charges to those cards in foreign currencies.
Banks are reportedly running into delays of months, with several banks — Banesco and Banco Venezolano de Credito (BVC) most notably — having to threaten to stop allowing the use of their credit cards abroad to force Cadivi [Commission of Foreign Exchange Administration] to loosen the purse-strings. As of May 1st, Cadivi reportedly owed BVC more than $1.3 billion to cover just that bank's credit card use abroad.
The General Motors subsidiary mentioned above has car and truck manufacturing facilities in the industrial city of Valencia. It announced that it would have to close in late June of 2009, because it could no longer obtain needed supplies due to the unavailability of hard currency, which it had not been able to obtain since November of 2008. The closure will "affect 4,000 employees at the Valencia assembly plant and another 70,000 people indirectly. "Without production, it’s difficult to comply with obligations to the workers. . . ." Production had been running about ninety thousand vehicles per year. When I visited Valencia during late 2000/early 2001, it was a relatively prosperous city, with several modern shopping malls and more under construction. The death of the GM plant there will very likely diminish Valencia's relative affluence.
Unfortunately, nationalization and El Presidente's other bold initiatives, coupled with dramatic inflation and the general unavailability of hard currency, do not seem to be helping the people of Venezuela much.
[A] consulting and polling company . . . is forecasting that consumer price inflation could come out at anything between 25% and 35% this year. On balance, that would imply little or no improvement, and perhaps a worsening, on last year – for which the comparable figure from the BCV was 30.9%, after 22.5% in 2007 and 17.5% in 2006..
Even at the lower range of this forecast, Datanálisis reckons personal consumption will fall this year by around 3%. But were inflation to hit the full 35%, the company says consumption could shrink by a shocking 13%.
The once excellent medical system in Venezuela has experienced similar changes under the control of El Presidente. There are no reliable Government statistics about any impact which his changes may have had on the death rate in Venezuela. It would be very difficult to compile meaningful statistics, because the very high crime rate in Venezuela produces many deaths, which even the very best universal medical care could not prevent. According to Venezuelan Government statistics, there were 9,653 murders in Venezuela between January and September of 2008. According to a police report leaked to the press, Venezuela has an average of 10,114 a year. Venezuela has a population of approximately twenty-six million. Mexico, with a population of 109,955,400 had "over 5,500" murders. Venezuela, with about ten thousand murders annually, presents a worse picture than Mexico on an absolute basis and a dramatically worse picture on a per capita basis.
El Presidente Chávez has attempted to bring the military, including his former defense minister, completely under his dominion. This may, or may not, relate to the threat, immediately following his 2007 defeat in the Constitutional referendum mentioned above, to decline to quell popular protests should he blatantly fudge the results.
Venezuela’s former defense minister – once a close ally of leftist President Hugo Chávez – was arrested on Thursday by the DIM military intelligence unit, one of his sons told Globovisión television.
Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel was driving with his wife near his home when his vehicle "was blocked off by officials of the DIM who, pointing firearms at them and threatening them not to make any telephone calls, shoved them into a (military) vehicle," the younger Baduel said.
Military prosecutors recently accused Baduel of alleged administrative irregularities during his tenure at the head of the Defense Ministry, a post he left in 2007 after a falling out with Chávez.
Baduel’s wife told Globovisión that both she and her husband had guns pointed at their heads by people who identified themselves as DIM agents, "but without saying where they were taking us," a situation she called "violent and irregular."
Her husband "had been presenting himself regularly every two weeks" at the military court handling his case, Mrs. Baduel said.
It has become increasingly common for leaders who fall into disfavor with el Presidente to be arrested for "corruption;" those still in favor rarely suffer similar fates. It is very unlikely that this disparity has anything to do with their relative corruptness.
El Presidente has also rendered recently elected opposition Government officials impotent by superimposing new levels of Government over them, to ensure that all political power remains in his hands. This has been relatively easy, since the national legislature is completely under his control. In addition, he has made a point of suppressing public protests in communities where the opposition is favored. Very few pro-Chávez demonstrations have been suppressed.
El Presidente, as part of his plan to silence all opposition voices, recently brought "corruption" charges against the newly elected (opposition party) Mayor of Maracaibo in oil rich Zulia province (and a 2006 candidate for the Presidency), who thereafter hid to avoid arrest and obtained political asylum in Peru. In response, Venezuela recalled its ambassador to Peru.
El Presidente Chávez recently had Ortega Díaz, the president of Globovisión arrested on criminal charges, and is in the process of terminating Globovisión itself; El Presidente had refused two years previously to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Televisión, which had been broadcasting for thirty-five years but had become an often critical voice. Since el Presidente refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television in 2007, Globovisión has been the only anti-government network on public airwaves in Venezuela. The demise of Globovisión now seems to be imminent. In getting Sr. Díaz charged,
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez specifically ordered . . . the Supreme Justice Tribunal to "comply with their duty" and called on officialdom to be "agile" in acting against media organizations that were "poisoning" the population. That was what they were there for, Chavez said, and if not "they should resign so that somebody with courage takes over."
stirred panic [by] . . . reporting an earthquake before the government announced it. ''We're not going to tolerate a crazy man with a cannon shooting it at the whole world,'' Chávez said on his weekly television and radio show Sunday, referring to Alberto Ravell, the Globovisión general manager. "Enough! . . . This has to end or I'll stop calling myself Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias.''
''You are playing with fire, manipulating, inciting hate and much more. All of you: television networks, radio stations, papers,'' he said. “Don't make a mistake with me.''
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro followed up Monday by charging that Ravell had terrorized Venezuelan women and children with his 5:21 a.m. report. ''Globovisión and Alberto Federico Ravell incited panic and anxiety within the population,'' Maduro said. “We will not permit that.''
said that it had restricted its coverage in the immediate wake of the earthquake to data trawled from the United States Geological Survey. Globovisión Director Alberto Federico Ravell had appeared to call on the public for calm. This was what government ministers were doing not very much later on.
According to one of the few remaining opposition voices in Venezuela, a blog, El Presidente is also using the sorry state of the Venezuelan economy to silence Globolvisión, by imposing substantial fines and forfeitures and confiscating its assets. The blog article observed,
if you upset Chavez your property will be seized by either plain robbery or legal robbery through fines and "back" taxes. A few more months of that and Globovisión will be closed.
The United Nations and the Organization of American States have expressed worry about this and other efforts of El Presidente to destroy the vestiges of a free press in Venezuela. Venezuela has rejected these concerns; the Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS stated that foreign observers passing judgment on Venezuela are beholden "to the interests of the private media."
El Presidente Chávez has made substantial changes to the educational system in Venezuela, and has tried mightily to ensure that all students are provided an ideologically correct education. These steps have been praised by "a guy" in President Obama's Chicago neighborhood, William Ayers, who has also expressed appreciation of el Presidente Chávez's reforms in other areas.
This is my fourth visit to Venezuela, each time at the invitation of my comrade and friend Luis Bonilla, a brilliant educator and inspiring fighter for justice. Luis has taught me a great deal about the Bolivarian Revolution and about the profound educational reforms underway here in Venezuela under the leadership of President Chavez. We share the belief that education is the motor-force of revolution, and I’ve come to appreciate Luis as a major asset in both the Venezuelan and the international struggle—I look forward to seeing how he and all of you continue to overcome the failings of capitalist education as you seek to create something truly new and deeply humane. Thank you, Luis, for everything you’ve done.
Back in 1999 or 2000, when I was in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, a Venezuelan friend observed that public education was intentionally kept woefully inadequate to teach even the basic principles of rational analysis. This appears to be a continuing process.
Takeover of universities by the Venezuelan Government now seems likely. When the salaries of public school teachers were recently increased, El Presidente's Education Minister is reported to have stated that "besides 'decent' wages, the building of 'a new country' requires . . .'a constant effort by educators,' since 'the starting point for creating socialism is education'. . . . "
El Presidente Chávez has made a highly visible and vocal place for himself on the world stage, probably more so than had any other Venezuelan leader in history; some might suggest that he is excessively narcissistic, even for a president.
He has also worked quite diligently to communicate with his people; he presents Aló Presidente — a four hour long weekly address to the nation required to be carried by every state owned radio and television station. He recently announced that he would present a marathon four day long Aló Presidente, but due to "technical problems," managed only partially to deliver on his promise. Despite its truncation, his address was very probably longer than any known address ever given by a President of the United States; he may even have eclipsed his mentor, Fidel Castro of Cuba. He should be very proud, even though Fidel's brother Raul has said that el Presidente talks too long.
Whatever social goals El Presidente may have attempted to achieve, it is clear to me that his overriding purpose has been the accumulation of as much personal power as possible. He has succeeded to the degree that the power of the Venezuelan Government over her people has become the power of El Presidente; El Presidente and the Venezuelan Government have merged, to become the same entity.
A Venezuelan acquaintance once told me that when God created Venezuela, he gave her bountiful natural resources, great natural beauty, and industrious people. When an angel remarked that God had given Venezuela too much, God responded by giving Venezuela something more: her government.
In Part II of this article, I shall briefly explore the situation in which the United States, under President Obama, finds herself — and may eventually find herself — with reference to Venezuela under el Presidente Chávez