1999-2001: The Chávez Years We Forgot To Remember

A Facebook post on Alejandro Velasco's wall sends me into a deep reverie, as I realize "wait, half the people who read Caracas Chronicles probably don't remember what the early Chávez years were like."

Dear Alejandro,

On April 29th, 2000, I was a rookie reporter in Caracas trying to figure out the economics beat. As May Day drew near, speculation was rife about the looming minimum wage hike. Company budgets for the following year hinged on that decision, as did much of the public sector financial outlook so, just like every year, the number was all anyone was talking about in my world.

Law and longstanding custom had it that the president would decide the minimum wage hike on May 1st after a formal consultation with business and labour leaders. Breaking with precedent, though, the year-old government hadn’t convened the so-called “tripartite commission”. The president was on good terms with neither the business federation nor the labour unions. He’d taken to calling the old forum the “trimaldita” — the thrice damned — and was visibly gearing up to make the decision all on his own.

They didn’t have YouTube back in 2000, so I can’t find the clip of that night’s cadena. But I don’t need to: I remember it like it was yesterday. Chávez launched into his hotly anticipated speech flanked by his economics team: his ministers, his advisors, and his head of the National Budget Office, ONAPRE.

In what was, back then, still a shocking breach of the firewall between military and civilian roles, Chávez had put ONAPRE in the hands of an active service military officer, Brigadier General Guaicaipuro Lameda (army). A huge, menacing figure with an egg-shaped head and a reputation as a fiercely competent technocrat, General Lameda had been in the hotseat when the decision on the Minimum Wage hike had to be made. His staff was tasked with figuring out the economic and fiscal impact of different hikes. So as the president went to announce the number, the camera was pointed at Lameda’s face, not Chávez’s.

That made what followed impossible to hide: Lameda’s eyes just about popped out of his head as Chávez announced…a 20% hike in the minimum wage. It took Lameda a split second to regain his composure. Too late. It was a remarkable moment of live TV.

I interviewed Lameda a couple of years later, and he confirmed everyone’s suspicions. For months ahead of that speech, his office had been working on the Minimum Wage hike, running econometric models and budget simulations and liaising with spending ministries to come up with a technically sound recommendation. After detailed analysis, ONAPRE had recommended a 15% wage hike, and the president had accepted it…or so Lameda thought.

But then, live on the air, Chávez just changed his mind. Maybe 15% le sonaba pichirre. For whatever reason, the first time the Director of the National Budget Office heard the minimum wage was going up 20% was during the cadena that made it official.

For me, Guaicaipuro Lameda’s stunned look as the number was read out was the moment the penny dropped: however much trouble we’d thought we might be in, we were in way worse trouble than that.

The episode didn’t quite rise to the level of scandal. A few political junkies noted it, but there was no real outlet for concern over episodes like this to express itself as organized opposition.

We were naïve. So naïve that Chávez’s unwillingness to sit around the negotiating table with Fedecamaras and CTV still had the power to jolt. For me, Guaicaipuro Lameda’s stunned look as the number was read out was the moment the penny dropped: however much trouble we’d thought we might be in, we were in way worse trouble than that.

Thinking back, those early Chávez years really were a strange time: we were all still tentatively feeling our way around the new ground rules, and these were revealed only gradually. The idea that Chávez wouldn’t discuss important decisions with adversaries was worrying enough. But that wasn’t the half of it: he wouldn’t discuss big decisions with anyone, not even his staff.

Bring anyone to mind?

I imagine younger readers will have a hard time imagining what that era felt like. We’re so used to thinking in terms of government-and-opposition, it’s strange to realize Chávez didn’t really face an opposition back then. At all.

A few guys sniping at him from the opinion pages of El Universal? Sure.

An organized political movement? It just wasn’t there.

The era of polarization, of street protests and marches and coups and Plaza Altamira generals, all of that came later. For three long years, from the time he was inaugurated in early 1999 to the end of 2001, Chávez effectively ran the country unopposed.

How? For the most part, by using the process of drafting a new constitution as a ruse to take over more and more control over of the state.

Hágamos memoria. Chávez was elected in December 1998 and inaugurated on February 2nd, 1999. He called for a Constituent Assembly and, even though the then-in-force constitution had no-such-mechanism, the old Corte Suprema rolled and let him do it, “committing suicide to avoid being assassinated.” 

On April 25th, 1999 a referendum on whether to hold a Constituent Assembly was overwhelmingly approved. Next, in July, the Constituent Assembly’s members had to be elected, and Chávez tapped a young, then unknown whiz-kid mathematician by the name of Nelson Merentes to rig up a “proportional” system that would allow him to walk off with 92% of the seats on the basis of 65% of the votes.

With this crushing majority secured, he insisted the Assembly be considered “supra-constitutional” — able to overrule all previously constituted powers — and then used it to write a new constitution, dissolve the elected Congres, the old Supreme Court and the old Consejo Supremo Electoral.

What’s hard to wrap your head around now is that he did all this virtually unopposed.

As a parting shot, the Constituent Assembly appointed — with no elections — a short-lived National Legislative Commission, which came to be known as the “congresillo”, again fully dominated by his partisans. It was the first time, I think, since the 19th century that legislative power had been vested in a body that didn’t even pretend to have been elected by the people. (The congresillo, as it happens, was very much in power at the time of that April 29th, 2000 minimum wage hike announcement.) For the cherry on top, Chávez had a hardcore partisan, Manuel Quijada, appointed commissar over the judicial system, firing hundreds of judges with no semblance of due process or right of defense, and replacing with pliable “temporary judges” that could be removed at will.

What’s hard to wrap your head around now is that he did all this virtually unopposed: with 70-80% approval in the polls, a disorganized, demoralized and demobilized rump AD as the biggest opposition party and virtually no organized pushback from anyone.

We were still struggling to decode Chávez’s discourse of radical popular empowerment. In public statements, the president was at pains to stress the participatory, protagonic nature of his new model of democracy — but moments like the 2000 minimum wage hike gave us glimpses at just how divorced from actual governing practice the discourse was. In the years since, we’ve become so inured to chavista doublespeak it’s easy to forget how bewildering this all was at first.

But  the signs of authoritarian drift and the decay of the rule of law were clear from the very start. There are dozens of examples, but FIEM always comes to mind first, because gutting it did so much damage later on. Chávez’s Constituent Assembly had granted Constitutional status to the Fondo de Inversión para la Estabilización Macroeconómica — a fund designed to store some of the surplus during high oil years so they could be spend when oil prices went down. Nobody forced Chávez to double down on the FIEM law, he chose to put it in the constitution of his own accord. Under the rules Chávez enshrined, as oil prices began to recover in 2000 and 2001, the first payments into the fund ought to have been triggered. Chávez just refused to make them…just because.

Later, his handpicked Supreme Tribunal would refuse to hear the lawsuit brought to try to hold him accountable for this. It’s easy to dismiss this as technocratic nitpicking, but sixteen years on, as we face an economic catastrophe born of the need to adjust to an oil bust under a pile of new debt and without any stabilization funds to tide us over, it’s hard not to wonder how much of today’s hunger is the direct legacy of yesteryear’s institutional devastation.

Primero Justicia hadn’t been founded as a political party yet, much less VP, which later split off from it.

In July 2000, the voters renewed Chávez’s mandate for a 6 year term under the new 1999 constitution. That day also saw elections for all the new constitutional offices, including the National Assembly.

Primero Justicia hadn’t been founded as a political party yet, much less VP, which later split off from it. UNT was but a glimmer in Omar Barboza’s eye. The rump AD, Copei, Proyecto Venezuela and Causa R still put up candidates for the National Assembly later that year, but were whipped (though, at 66 deputies out of 165, the 2000 opposition still got more seats than PSUV did last year!)

With 92 seats in the Assembly and an opposition so weak and demoralized it could be picked off almost at will, Chávez’s MVR could pass pretty much any law it wanted. Which is why what came next was so hard to make sense of: in November 2000, the Assembly moved to give Chávez special powers to legislate by decree for a year through a “Ley Habilitante” (Enabling Law).

I remember my confusion at the time. It’s not as though the huge chavista majority in the Assembly was going to push back on any given bill the president sent down. Why, then?

And…was this really a reasonable way to use enabling powers?

The old constitution, and established custom, limited the use of enabling powers to financial emergencies. The habilitante was a safety valve to ensure the government could move swiftly when the fiscal roof was about to cave in.

More than enabling the president to respond to an emergency, the assembly seem to be forfeiting its basic constitutional function altogether.

But the November 2000 enabling law was cast much wider than that. It was approved for a longer period, and extended to matters nobody thought of as emergencies. More than enabling the president to respond to an emergency, the assembly seem to be forfeiting its basic constitutional function altogether.

The wherefores for this were all terribly murky right up until November 13th, 2001: the very last day of the Enabling Law’s term. It’s a date that marked the effective end of Chávez’s extraordinarily long period of unopposed rule.

On that day — at the very last minute — the president published an extraordinary raft of decree-laws (‘decretos con valor y fuerza de ley’): 49 of them, to be exact, remaking Venezuela’s legal landscape overnight.

Public opinion was stunned.

By waiting until literally the very last day of his enabling powers, Chávez closed off the possibility for any type of public discussion on laws that redrew the rules over huge swathes of public life: fishing, banking, ports, railroads, maritime commerce, identification, police, agricultural credit, insurance, land ownership, tourism, cajas de ahorro, FIEM, even the Ley de Hidrocarburos — which is virtually Venezuela’s second constitution, so central is it to the economic life of the nation. 

Not surprisingly, fishermen, bankers, port-users, railroad builders, sailors, ID-companies, cops, farmers, insurance companies, landowners, tourism operators and oilmen…these people felt maybe a heads up might’ve been polite. A consultation even. A chance to review bills and give feedback.

What had crystallized for me watching that April 29th, 2000 cadena on the minimum wage would begin to crystallize for the nascent opposition on November 13th the following year: that “participatory democracy” was a giant sham, a historic bait-and-switch aimed squarely at accumulating power in a single person.

It’s easy to forget the opposition barely existed as an organized force on November 12th.

It’s easy to forget now that the crisis that built into the April 2002 coup began in earnest in with this event. It’s easy to forget the opposition barely existed as an organized force on November 12th. And it’s easier still to forget that for much of December 2001-February 2002, the heart of the case against the new measures was that these were “leyes inconsultas” — laws that had never been consulted with anyone, that had been sprung on the country as an 11th hour surprise, despite the fact that both the constitution and official rhetoric elevated “participation” to a central place in the new political imaginary.

Some of us actually took seriously the language in the constitution’s Article 299 about how, in economic policy-making, the state would pursueuna planificación estratégica democrática participativa y de consulta abierta,” (“strategic planning that is democratic and participatory, following open consultation.”)

People actually held out some hope that if we protested the imposition of these laws, Chávez might think again and sit down at the table to hash issues out with interested parties. (And why wouldn’t we think that? The guy had championed a constitution that bound him to do just that, kept it in his pocket, used to call it “the best in the world” again and again…)

Long story short, the protest that escalated into an out-of-control constitutional crisis began as an entirely reasonable, eminently moderate, constitutionally grounded demand for consultation.

Long story short, the protest that escalated into an out-of-control constitutional crisis began as an entirely reasonable, eminently moderate, constitutionally grounded demand for consultation. And it’s easy to forget the fuel to that escalation was Chávez’s narcissistic rage, the way he reacted to all pushback with furious hyperbollic denunciations, shrill attacks designed not just to provoke and to escalate but, ultimately, to deny all but his unconditional supporters the right to participate in public life at all.

This, at any rate, is the history that came to mind, Alejandro, as I read your recent, aggressively tendentious Facebook post:

And here’s the deeper, more perverse, truth behind the cottage industry of Chavez/Trump comparisons. They’re purposely deceptive. By focusing on surface level comparisons of style and cherry-picking similarities of substance, what they elide are the powerful ways in the which Trump and Trumpism in fact resembles Venezuela’s opposition, especially in its early years – when long before Chavez said anything about socialism or commanded the institutional control he eventually did – their zero-sum strategy echoed nothing so much as what Trump and co are now calling for, in advance: if elected, it’s rigged; and even if it isn’t, we will shut down anything Clinton attempts, regardless of process, law, or order. For a long time the strategy has been to wash (or perhaps wish) away those years as some sort of irrational fluke, as the thing that Chavismo drove us to if only it hadn’t been itself so anti-democratic and irrational. Yes, we orchestrated a coup, paralyzed the vital oil industry, used the media as an open political weapon, celebrated when the courts refused to call April 2002 a coup, cried fraud without evidence, and boycotted elections that gave Chavez legitimate, constitutional control over the legislature, which in turn helped pave the way for consolidation of power and erosion of checks and balances. But that wasn’t us, you see. That was him, and them. If only they’d been more rational and democratic, we would have been, too. The reason why that’s not just false but dangerously so is the same reason why these Trump/Chavez comparisons are so wrong: they seek not so much to explain political phenomena than to evade responsibility. By dismissing process and context, they can write themselves entirely out of the narrative, they can escape any and all responsibility for their own irresponsibility. It’s not silencing, it’s not even mis-remembering. It’s a willful and deliberate red-herring. Don’t fall for it.

As a historian I think it’s fair for us to expect you to be especially attuned to issues of chronology. What happened first and what happened after matters.

Those of us who remember these years understand that attributing Chávez’s increasing authoritarianism after 2002 to the virulence of the opposition he faced is putting the cart a very long way before the horse. Chávez’s authoritarian drift was in full display even when he faced virtually no organized opposition at all. If you don’t believe me, go ask Guaicaipuro Lameda.

It had become entirely clear that Chávez was actively hostile to any limit on his power.

On November 14th, 2001, society began to react. After three long years. And rightly so. By then, it had become entirely clear that Chávez was actively hostile to any limit on his power. That he insisted on making decisions unilaterally even when there was no upside to doing so. That he perceived power as a zero-sum game, a dominance-submission drama. That he refused to be hemmed in by any person, custom, law or institution, even the ones he had created, even the ones that answered directly to him. That he was openly disdainful and determined to humiliate those who stood in his way, lashing out in narcissistic rage of terrifying virulence.

If you can’t see the parallels with Trump…bueno, what can I say.

I find it amazing that you don’t seem to realize that in blaming the opposition to Chávez’s authoritarianism for Chávez’s authoritarianism, you’re engaged in the mirror image of the two-bit revisionism that’s seen some U.S. conservatives blame Paul Krugman for the rise of Trump. I’m sure when they do it, you find it easy to recognize this as sophistry: a last ditch attempt to shirk responsibility for the authoritarian engendro their ideology has spawned. 

Here’s the thing: it’s the same thing when you do it, chamo. And it worries me for the same reason: I don’t think the U.S. can have a stable political system until sensible right-wingers stop shirking blame and start taking stock of the authoritarian nightmare their movement is on the cusp of imposing on the country. And I don’t think Venezuela is going to be stable until the left stops this sort of pathetic buck-passing and recogen su gallo muerto, either.