That Useless Election for the Red Caudillo

By Guido Rampoldi in La Repubblica
Translated by me

This article caught my eye for several reasons. For one thing, it’s rare to see foreign journalists grasp how hollow Chavez’s claim to be leading a revolution really is, and Rampoldi is unsparing on that point. For another, it’s always significant when a left-wing paper turns on Chavez, and this piece appeared in La Repubblica, which is sort of like the Italian version of The Guardian.

The hot gift in Caracas this Christmas is the chavito, an action figure depicting Hugo Chavez in his movement’s red uniform. The buyers are both those who love the president, who buy it so their kids will also learn to love him, and those who hate him, who buy it perhaps to skewer it with needles. Saturday night, on the eve of the parliamentary election, an entertainer on State TV showed the cameras two chavitos, and said “tomorrow, you can vote either for this one or this one” to laughter from the chavista candidates around him. They chatted about the opposition – all of it “coup-mongering and fascist,” and, why not, anti-patriotic – and later about the empire, imperialism, in short, the US, the opposition’s alleged benefactors. Then we saw video links from various rallies, with fireworks, patriotic and revolutionary songs and people in red shirts chanting: fascists, golpistas, imperialists, enemies of the people. Finally Chavez himself turned up, reciting a poem along with a guitar player. Then it was back to the studio, and the chants again: fasicsts, golpistas, imperialists.

Seeing all this, just hours before the start of voting, you had the impression they had just defrosted that South American left that never learned anything from its own mistakes. Tenacious, unhinged, incorregible.

Add to that the fact that in Washington you have the Bush administration and that the Venezuelan opposition is remarkably dim, and it’s not hard to imagine where the sum of so much ineptitude was going to lead: to the Nth disaster.

Sunday’s parliamentary elections were certainly a step in that direction. The biggest Opposition parties decided to boycot them when they discovered the electronic voting system made it possible to identify voter’s choices. But a technical compromise was possible, and the choice to abandon the elections was determined by fear. They were headed for a humiliating defeat, according both to the polls and to the state of mind of an antichavista electorate that believes neither in the deformed democracy you see on state-TV nor in an Opposition lacking a coherent identity.

So Chavez will no longer be restrained by parliament. Up to now, his partisans had enough votes to govern, but not to change the constitution. After Sunday, he’ll be able to get his way on the most far-fetched of projects, even becoming president for life as one of his parliamentarians has proposed. Worse yet, with the Opposition absent from parliament, the country now lacks the only institution that might mediate the conflict between two Venezuelas unable to build a single national community and convinced that the other side is a tool of foreign interests: of Cuba, or of the United States.

When you ask the red shirts how Chavez’s six years in power have changed their lives, they speak first of Mercal. These are stores in poor neighborhoods where anyone can buy, at political prices, food imported by the government…with the following results: the poor finally eat top grade Argentine and Uruguayan beef, the rich pay half as much as they used to (since access to Mercal is open to all), and Venezuelan ranchers are in crisis.

In the ranking of gratitudes, after Mercal you hear about health care, which has been overhauled thanks to a massive influx of Cuban doctors, and later about schools where adults learn to read and write or get training for a job. Moreover, Chavez has given a small push to programs for refurbishing poor neighborhoods – which, however, were started decades earlier – and has restarted land reform, though not truly aggressively.

According to the propaganda, this would amount to Bolivarian Socialism, a new, revolutionary economic model. But if that’s case, we would also have to consider Italy’s Christian Democrats to be Bolivarian Socialists, for everything they did in the 20 years after the war, and using the same method as Chavez: privileging first and foremost their own electorate.

The fact is that it’s easy to be bolivarian towards your own supporters when you govern the world’s fifth oil exporter at a time when oil is above $50 a barrel. Probably, the old social democrats and christian democrats who used to rule the country would have been just as generous: the crisis that brought them down reached its peak in the late 90s, when oil sunk to $9 per barrel.

What would have made a real difference would have been deep structural reforms, especially in the public administration. Yet even chavistas admit that the public administration has not changed.

For instance, those sections of the police widely feared for their rapacity and violence. Hundreds of complaints accuse them of fighting crime with torture and premeditated murders.

This happened in the past also. But today, the atmosphere is even more favorable to such abuses. After all, a former member of the Caracas police special forces – in fact, death squads – is a chavista mayor of a part of Caracas and uses “we will take back the city” as a slogan – you can read it painted on walls just steps from the presidential palace.

The opposition didn’t much care about this variable-geometry legality until it realized it was tremendously exposed. The chavistas have taken control of the Supreme Court boosting its membership from 20 to 32, and the chief judge qualifies as “revolutionary” the justice it imparts. The number of judges with temporary appointments has grown to a full 75% of the total, keeping them nice and tame.

Made public by a pro-government web site, the list of the 3 and a half million Venezuelans who signed the petitions for a referendum against Chavez has become a tool of political discriminition in the hands of the public administration. Through new laws, they’ve tamed the fury of the private TV stations, which until two years ago were arguably even worse than state TV, but are now either circumspect or indifferent (because they risk hyperbolic fines and shut downs.) They’ve also aimed straight at the journalists: they risk 30 month jail sentences if they criticize too strongly even a National Assembly member or a general, up to five years if they publish news that “disturb public order.” In the new Penal Code, blocking a street can land you in jail from 4 to 8 years, and according to the Supreme Tribunal there is nothing illegal about prior censorship.

Until now, the government has resorted these pointed weapons only rarely.

But when the time comes, they’ll be ready. In October, the Bush administration added Venezuela to the list of five enemies of the United States, even if it’s on the third tier. In response, Chavez ordered his armed forces to prepare for “asymetrical warfare”, to be taken to the enemy through “non-conventional tactics, such as guerrillas and terrorism.” Whether or not he really believes in the prospect of a power play by Washington, trumpeting the possibility is extremely useful as a way to keep his country underfoot, and, in a few years time, to launch a more explicit authoritarianism: if the nation is under attack, who could protest if the president arrests the traitors, crushing the enemy’s fifth column?