10 February 2005 Edition

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Venezuala's remarkable revolution

Richard Gott

Richard Gott

Richard Gott is a writer, historian and journalist who worked for many years for The Guardian newspaper in London, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Latin America.

He first went to Cuba in the early 1960s, after the revolution, excited about the possibilities of change. In Cuba, Gott met Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and many of the leaders of the revolution and became so fascinated by Latin America that decided to go and work there. He lectured in the University of Chile in the late 1960s and then worked as a correspondent for the next ten or 20 years.

Gott visited Ireland recently to talk about Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution led by Hugo Chavez. Gott's last book, In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, is a key text for anyone who wants to understand the latest developments in this Latin American country.

You arrived to Latin America at a time when some countries, for example Chile, were trying to rid themselves of corrupt dictatorial governments. How were things at that time?

Well, it was a very fascinating time. Many countries began to have revolutionary experiences and even things like the famous Latin American novelists that we all know like Gabriel García Márquez, and many famous writers emerged in the same period, in a way inspired by these possibilities of change. It was rather wonderful in those days because you had a big audience for your writings. If you were writing about Latin America it was one of the parts of the world that people began to know about, to be excited about and interested in. I was very fortunate to be there at the time. I worked in Chile in the Allende period; I was there during the coup of Pinochet and a bit afterwards and then I follow the excitements of Bolivia and Argentina.

That, of course, has changed completely. Latin America has disappeared off the screen really in the last ten or twenty years. Nobody knows what is happening there.

You talk of the Cuban Revolution as one of the key events in Latin American history. Do you feel that the Bolivarian Revolution in today's Venezuela could be considered a comparable event?

Yes, certainly what is happening in Venezuela is the most unusually interesting development in Latin America for 50 years, since the Cuban revolution. And I think that what it makes it particularly intriguing is the fact that the Venezuelan president, Chávez, is a military man.

After the 1970s and '80s, people had a vision of the Latin American military as people with dark glasses and this kind of sinister figure. So, the idea that a young colonel could seize power and lead a left-wing revolution is very foreign to most people's understanding of Latin America. It is true that in the past there has been a tradition of radical soldiers, and Chavez is one of them, and because he comes from this unexpected political quarter he caught people unawares, especially the Americans, who cannot get the measure of him. This is a military man, who usually would have subscribed to the American view, who instead arrived with this radical programme, this close friendship with Castro and this huge popular following.

I think that it is a slow motion revolution. When discussing revolutions we are used to talking about the fall of the Bastille, the fall of the Winter Palace. Something happens on Day 1 as a major change and the revolution begins. But essentially, in Venezuela the revolution has not yet occurred. Chavez has been there for six years now and the major events and excitements are still to come. These six years have been a tremendous rollercoaster, with the coup d'etat, with strikes. But he has finally got a sort of grip on the country, reinforced by the referendum he won last year and there are things happening nearly every day. It is very exciting.

It seems that even for Chavez, it was a bit of a surprise to be identified as the leader of the 1992 military attempt to overthrown the corrupt Venezuelan Government of the time.

His origins as a public figure were very dramatic in the sense that he staged this coup in 1992 and it was unsuccessful — it was successful in most of the cities in the country, but it was not in the capital, Caracas. So, he appeared on TV to tell his comrades in arms to put them down to avoid further bloodshed because the coup would not be successful. He said: "for now, the project is not working", and this phrase, "for now", sort of echoed in the popular imagination. He was on TV only for half a minute but because it was broadcast everywhere, he became overnight this extraordinarily famous figure.

He has this very charismatic personality. When he was elected first in 1998, it was in itself almost a revolution by election, because the existing political system collapsed on that day. The old political parties, the old trade unions, everything that had run Venezuela politically for the previous 30 years just simply imploded and it was no longer there. And Chavez filled the vacuum.

He had this kind of idea of what he wanted to do in very general terms, but he did not have a political party, he did not really have a political movement, he had a few friends in universities and the armed forces. But everything that has happened in the last six to eight years has sort of developed by reaction to the opposition and by the movement of the people demanding things. It's been a very exciting and unusual process.

And, how is the process going at the moment?

I am extremely optimistic and I think it is going great. The opposition, which gave the impression of being quite strong for the last three or four years — it had these street demonstrations, organised the coup d'etat, organised the big strike of the oil company, and seemed to have this tremendous presence in the media, in the newspapers, on TV —, forced Chavez to hold a recall referendum. He was forced to go to the people and justify his being president — and he won an astonishing majority of 60%, and since then the opposition has been extremely quiet, confused, divided, uncertain what to do.

I think that eventually a lot of them will start supporting the Chavez Government and others will fade away. However, I suspect that others may form terrorist groups, as it will be quite unusual to allow a revolutionary process to continue without an armed opposition. So, the future is by no means clear and peaceful.

Where is Chavez getting the funding to pay for those social policies and could you tell us about his education and land reforms?

Let's start with the oil company, which was nationalised 30 years ago. This has theoretically been in the hands of the Venezuelan state but, for all sort of reasons, this company became a sort of replica of the America and Dutch oil companies of the old days. The oil company became interested in its own survival rather than make its profits available for spending by the government. So, for example, the oil company bought refineries in Europe, petrol stations in the US, for example, where it owns 14,000 petrol stations.

They spent money on these sort of projects and very little came back to Venezuela. Chavez has put a complete stop to that, creating a new way of controlling the oil company and, for the first time, very large sums of money are being made available to the government for social spending. More than that, as a result of the Iraq war, the world's oil price has gone up dramatically — it has tripled in three years — so a jackpot of extra money is coming in. For the first time, a revolutionary government in South America has large sums of money to spend.

What they are doing is starting at the bottom, with literacy programmes similar to the one that the Cubans had 40 years ago, to make sure that a million people who are illiterate will learn to read and write.

Then have moved into other programmes for early school leavers, for people who had dropped out of school. Essentially, what they want to do is, one way or another, bring people up out of the shantytowns and bring them into society through education programmes that had never ever before reached out to them.

And also, they have this extraordinary health programme. Something like 15,000 Cuban doctors have come to work in the shantytowns and the rural areas, where there were never any health facilities before.

Within two or three years, in what was previously an absolutely impoverished population, people are learning to read and write, people are having second level education and some are beginning to move into university education and getting access to proper health care.

And another programme is a food programme, with cheap supermarkets being set up in the shantytowns. At the moment, a lot of the food continues to be imported but the idea is to get Venezuela self-sufficient when it comes to producing its own food and that is where the land reforms come into play.

Essentially, much of Venezuela is not farmed at all, or if it is it has vast cattle ranches producing beef for export, which is not benefiting the people in the country. So, the aim is to reform these cattle ranches, to made land available for people and to have new programmes of producing food in the countryside to feed the cities. This is the kind of programme that is being outlined for the next decade or so. There will be elections next year and Chavez will stand again for president and will again win. So, he's got another six or seven years to make the projects work.

At the time of the coup, the Spanish conservative government, led by Aznar, who at the time held the European presidency, held a conference with then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, to welcome the new Venezuelan government. So, would you tell us about the enemies of Chavez outside Venezuela?

The Spanish are leaders of the anti-Chavez movement, probably in a way more seriously than the United States. One of the unfortunate things about the European Union is that Spain, in terms of foreign policies, was more or less given Latin America to look after and control. Essentially it is responsible for formulating and organising European policy towards Latin America. In the days of Aznar, this meant an extremely conservative and hostile policy, not just to Chavez but also to Cuba and to any progressive governments that may have emerged in Latin America. And the European Union went along with it, even when Britain and France may have had other views, they finally accepted Spanish leadership.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that when the new Spanish socialist government comes along, the policy comes into reverse and now the European Union has a rather progressive policy towards Latin America, especially towards Cuba and Chavez.

Then, there is the United States. The US had been verbally hostile to Chavez even before he was elected, when he wanted to go to the US and they would not give him a visa. So they have been very mistrustful of Chavez and that has continued.

As everybody knows, they were not very active when it came to revealing that they knew a coup was on the way in 2001. In my own view, the US are active in helping the opposition in Venezuela. On the other hand, this opposition is very rich, very active and well able to finance their own counter revolution.

And what about the impact of the Venezuelan revolution in Latin America and, especially, Cuba?

Well, Venezuela and Cuba are very complementary and they can help each other a lot. Curiously enough, the first country after the Cuban revolution that Fidel [Castro] went to was Venezuela, because there was a leftist movement going on there at the time and he very much hoped they would have a good relationship, but because the Venezuelan government felt into a pro-American regimen, that was sabotaged.

Today, with Chavez, this possibility of a very close relationship was revived and I think it works on a whole series of levels. First of all, Chavez and Fidel had a very close friendship and they talk on the phone all the time. And I think that is good, because Fidel is a very wise political figure, has been around for a very long time. He had to deal with the US and has experience with a lot of revolutionary projects in Latin America and he gives very good, disinterested advice.

So, Venezuelans are now providing Cuba with cheap oil - they had been providing the islands of the Caribbean with cheap oil for a very long time before Chavez, so all he has done has been to extend this courtesy to Cuba. Obviously, this had a tremendous importance for Cuba, which, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has suffered from having to have expensive energy.

One of the returns is that the Cubans provide their doctors programme that they have been developing for years in 44 countries in Africa and Latin America, and that now are concentrating their efforts in Venezuela. And I must say that the presence of the Cuban doctors in the shantytowns has had a huge effect in the popularity of Chavez, because almost overnight they were able to deliver the service. When I went 20 months ago they were visiting people in their houses, but now they have built small clinics and not only do general consultation, they do eye surgery and dental surgery. It is breathtaking; I have never seen anything like it before. And it is hugely popular.

What about the rest of Latin America?

Chavez is a man who is talking to Latin Americans about working together and being united as one people, very much on the lines of Bolivar and even Ché Guevara, and his policies are inspiring social, indigenous movements, trade unions, etc to look for political change in their own countries.

Chavez has revived the Bolivarian rhetoric, the idea that Latin America should be a united country. And this rhetoric is really opposed to globalisation, to neo-liberal economics. That has begun to strike a chord in Latin America.

For a long time, people thought there was no alternative and that they had to embrace this new US strategy that allegedly would bring them amazing wealth and riches. However, it failed to deliver the goods, and people got far poorer and farmers had to move into the cities due to privatisation of the countryside. The whole neo-liberal programme has been disastrous. So, there were emerging movements against it in every country. And Chavez in some way has encouraged these movements into believing that yes, there is an alternative and things can be done differently.

There are movements for change in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, where the government of Kirchner is talking in terms similar to those of Chavez and we will see a lot of developments and that is what makes Latin America a very exciting place at the moment.

The fact that Chavez is a military man and has organised the Venezuelan army to participate in development work projects is also having an impact on the armies of Latin America, always looking for a role, because traditionally they have had the role of the conquistadors: to suppress the Indians, to keep the population under control, crushing guerrilla movements in the '60s and '70s. They have always come out of these conflicts feeling uncomfortable for themselves and often, some of the young officers involved in this work of repression came out with these radical ideas. So, even at that level, Chavez is having an impact and I believe we will see the emergence of very progressive army officers in some countries.

This is a revolution that has Chavez's fingerprints all over it. Has it had a future without him?

I think that Chavez, the same as Fidel in Cuba, for the first years is essential for the revolution to go on the way it has. But if Chavez was to disappear tomorrow, the revolution will continue. I think there are now enough people inspired by the ideas he has brought to the fore. The process would be very difficult to reverse. I think that Chavismo without Chavez will continue in some shape or form, and the same for the Bolivarian revolution.

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