Interview with Rodrigo Acuña on the ABC's Radio National Rear Vision program 7 October 2012. Click here to listen to the program. Full transcript below as published on the ABC.
- Sunday 7 October 2012 12:05PM
It was hard to find a more polarising figure than the former President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Hollywood types like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone were proud to be his friends, and yet others accused him of being more of a threat to the United States than Castro or Bin Laden ever were. Within Venezuela also, he aroused strong feelings - his humble beginnings and welfare spending won him loyalty from the poor, but others were disturbed by the increasingly authoritarian nature of his government. Now he has died, aged 58. From the Rear Vision archive, we look at his surprising rise to the top and his turbulent decade in power.
Everyone has an opinion about Chavez. To his detractors he is becoming increasingly autocratic, even messianic; for many others it’s either untrue or irrelevant beside the enormous benefits he has brought to the country and their lives. One thing everyone agrees on is that he’s different. While all previous presidents came from the same elite class, he didn’t.
Rodrigo Acuña: Hugo Chavez was born in 1954 in Barinas, which is a remote part of Venezuela. He has seven siblings. He was born quite poor, in basically a mud hut without running water. He sold lollies before and after school. Chavez’s parents were local schoolteachers.
Then roughly the age I think of about 17, he joined the military academy. I mean, his goals in life at the time were to become a baseball player, but he needed to move to Caracas, because Caracas is the capital of Venezuela and that’s where the major teams are. And the only way to actually arrive in Caracas for a boy or teenager from a remote rural part of Venezuela was through the military; that was one of the few options that he had, so he joined the military. And then for the next 20 or so years, he works his way up the military hierarchy.
Kathy Gollan: Rodrigo Acuña from international studies at Macquarie University.
Chavez rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and along the way became a radical and an admirer of Simón Bolivar, who lead the independence struggle against the Spanish. Chavez founded a clandestine group of disaffected officers within the military. They studied the writings of Bolivar and waited for their moment.
Rodrigo Acuña: During the 1970s, again if we return to this President Carlos Andrés Pérez, there was an oil boom; there was some sort of redistribution of the oil wealth in Venezuela. We move to the 1980s, things become quite terrible for many people and in late-1989 the government accepts an IMF package, basically, and without the ratification of congress, and basically implements serious austerity measures. This creates a rebellion in Caracas and then eventually spreads throughout the country, called the ‘Caracazo’.
The military is then brought out onto the streets to restore order. We’re talking several hundred people, if not into the thousands, were killed during this time. Basically the entire country’s falling apart. And this provides Hugo Chavez and his comrades within the Venezuelan military a catalyst; this is what they were looking for. Chavez has said on many occasions he wanted to do something but he wasn’t clear as to how to go about it.
So Chavez organises a military coup with this underground movement within the military. He fails. His comrades succeed in other parts of the country, but Chavez fails to take Caracas. That was his job. He fails to take Caracas and then he’s informed of the situation—what’s happening—and he negotiates with the president and the press to call off the coup, put down their weapons, and they give him two or three minutes on Venezuelan television.
He makes this call, but then he says, ‘I’m sorry we have actually failed,’ he doesn’t actually retract from attempting to carry out this coup. And he says, ‘We haven’t won—for now - por ahora’ And of course many people in Venezuela, in particular Venezuela’s slums, saw that as Chavez was a champion of their causes. This was not a traditional right-wing military coup; this was something different. This is a different political animal.
Javier Corrales: And he withdrew from politics. He went to jail and then he was released in the 1990s, and then he decided to run for office democratically with a fairly moderate discourse compared to today’s, but definitely in the direction of ‘we have to change the stranglehold of political parties and we have to of course do more for the folks who aren’t doing so well.’
Kathy Gollan: Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Javier Corrales: And so he became the most popular candidate in that election, and since then he has been the most popular politician in Venezuela.
Kathy Gollan: And so who voted for him in that first election? What sort of people?
Javier Corrales: People from all walks of life voted there, that it’s not easy to predict the vote based on a particular class. Yes, ordinary folks, low-income folks, voted for him overwhelmingly, but also across all other income categories. There are studies that show that even well-to-do Venezuelans voted for him. Both the elite as well as the non-elite had many gripes with the status quo and the parties of the time and they placed their hope on this newcomer, this young person, who was seen as somebody who tried the military route but now, ‘Look at him, he’s trying the democratic route. He can be trusted, he’s not that crazy, he’s come to his senses and his heart is in the right place.’ This appealed to lots of people.
And he was able to maintain that electoral coalition for a couple of years. Since then, his coalition is very different. He is still in the majority but he has lost the support of the middle classes in a significant way.
Julia Buxton: Initially when Chavez was elected, he cited the British Prime Minister Tony Blair as his role model. And what Chavez was offering was a kind of third way between the market and the state. The issue that Chavez then immediately confronted was the massive power and vested interests of the old two-party regime that he had displaced. We’re talking about the private sector organisations, the trade union organisations, which were affiliated to the two parties.
So what Chavez faced with his first initial and very moderate attempts to reform the constitution was an enormous backlash from all of these powerful interests which had prevailed in Venezuela since 1958. The challenge that Chavez and Venezuela faced was that the opposition parties themselves had so little credibility, so what they relied on was the private sector media and ultimately the military to act as, effectively, the opposition.
Kathy Gollan: Julia Buxton is head of international relations in the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University.
Chavez was elected as president in 1998 with 56 per cent of the vote. Even so, it was never going to be easy for an outsider like him. Newsweek published an article titled ‘Is Hugo Chavez Insane?’ and the local media was even more hostile. But he could not have predicted that he would face, within a few years, massive strikes, a recall referendum, and a coup—all of which failed, most significantly, the coup of April 2002.
Javier Corrales: Venezuela almost entered a pre-civil war stage with Chavez’s supporters becoming more hard-core, demanding that their president became more intransigent, and the opposition getting more scared and demanding that the president would stop going in the direction that he was going. And this produced the biggest street mobilisations in the history of Venezuela. The crisis was so large that a group of military guys took advantage of the showdown between government supporters and the opposition to utilise this crisis and force the president to resign.
Journalist (archival): In Venezuela, there’s been an old-style South American military coup. A ring of tanks has surrounded the presidential palace and the armed forces have seized power. President Chavez has resigned and is believed to be negotiating his exile to Cuba.
Man (archival): The president wants to be out of the country, I think. He wants to be alive; he wants some guarantees for his life to go out—while there are a lot of people in Venezuela want him to go to jail.
Interviewer (archival): Has he resigned?
Man (archival): Yes. His forces, they say that he resigned. But he still at this time is in the palace and we don’t know yet what negotiations are still going on for him to leave.
Linda Mottram, AM (archival): One of the shortest coups in Latin American history is over. Only two days after he was forced from office, the fiery leftist president of oil-rich Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is back in control in Caracas, with thousands of his supporters turning out to welcome him home.
Javier Corrales: What is so interesting is that Chavez returns. In Latin America and throughout the developing world we get a lot of coups, but we don’t get a restoration coup.
Kathy Gollan: After only two days.
Javier Corrales: After only… exactly. The very same generals who supposedly asked for Chavez to resign were the ones who went back and asked him to return to power. In an alternative scenario you would have seen power being transferred perhaps to some new person or some vice president or some other figure, but this restoration was very dramatic. It was a very tragic moment in the history of Venezuela and nobody is proud of what happened that day.
Rodrigo Acuña: But what the coup plotters failed to take into account was that the lower ranks of the military did not support them. And once word spreads that Hugo Chavez is not actually resigned, that his ministers are being arrested, they’re being beaten—I mean, supporters of the government are being killed—then the military who did not support the coup begins to organise, so do Chavez’s supporters, and they basically arrive at the presidential palace in their tens of thousands.
The military establishes contact with the coup plotters and basically gives them an ultimatum: we’re coming to rescue Hugo Chavez in helicopters and Chavez should be handed back to us, and if not, we’re going to have a clash. It was a coup which the opposition, members of the Venezuelan private press, certain sections of the Venezuelan business community, supported, but it really did not have support with vast numbers of Venezuelans.
Kathy Gollan: And how did it affect Chavez himself? Did it change the way he…? Did it radicalise him? Did it change the way he governed?
Julia Buxton: Well, I think it had two very, very profound effects, not only on Chavez but on the subsequent direction of his administration. Firstly, it made the government realise that its core support base was amongst the poorest sectors of Venezuela. In 1998, Chavez had benefited from the support of alienated middle class groups, but with the coup attempt it was clear to Chavez that his core support base was the poor. Therefore, the Chavez government realised that if it was going to survive this immense opposition, it had to consolidate amongst the poor.
So as a result of this we have the development of a series of initiatives called the ‘misiones’, which were social policy projects specifically targeting the poorer sectors of Venezuela. So the government becomes more social democratic, increasingly more left wing, as it tries to consolidate this social support amongst the poor.
The second effect was it made Chavez inherently concerned and paranoid about having potential opponents within his administration or the state. So as a result of this we have a major purge after the coup attempt of 2002 and the later attempt to halt production at the national oil company, a purge of anybody who was seen to be anti-system and the placement of loyalists throughout the state.
So as a result of the coup, two factors: a focus on the poor and consolidation of Chavista dominance within the state, both of which became hallmarks of the regime subsequently.
Kathy Gollan: You’re with Rear Vision on RN. I’m Kathy Gollan and we are looking at the life and times of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who is standing today for re-election.
Only a few months after the failed coup of 2002, the country was thrown into chaos again when the managers of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, walked out.
Chavez responded by sacking them all, in their thousands, and replacing them with military personnel and loyalists. Oil production plummeted but has since recovered, and the company continues to pour money into state coffers.
Rodrigo Acuña: Well, the state first of all has been able to tap into huge levels of finances; I mean, there’s a lot of money that’s actually coming into the Venezuelan state. And that money has been used in numerous social projects; I mean, if you’re one of the average Venezuelans who lives in… you know, if you’re part of the 60 per cent of Venezuelans who lives in a slum or in a tough working class neighbourhood, you now have access to a local doctor—big change. You also have access to a local school—big change.
I mean, it’s not just health and education; we’re talking a quarter of a million homes have been built. They’re building these houses that are called ‘petrocasas’; they’re made from petrochemicals. I guess we could call them plastic houses and they’ve been developed from technology from Germany and from other parts of the world and the project now is to develop ten factories and to export these houses throughout Central America and the Caribbean. So we really are talking about a massive reinvestment into attempting to develop a country which historically, other than the petroleum industry, has lacked a lot of basic infrastructure.
Javier Corrales: He is the president in Latin America who has enjoyed the most amazing windfall of all times. Venezuela is the most significant petro-state in the world. They now have more proven reserves than Saudi Arabia. It far eclipses any other Latin American country in terms of its oil revenues and the amount of oil revenues that this government has enjoyed since 2003 has had no historical precedent in Venezuela and in Latin America.
And what Chavez has done is he has employed those resources—he has invested those resources—not in infrastructure, not in public management, not on a necessarily personal gain or palaces; no, he spends it on what an economist would describe as a typical stimulus package. You know, he just spends and spends and spends and injects money into the economy. So he has created a consumption boom that has produced the best economic times in the history of Venezuela.
Kathy Gollan: In a sense, what’s wrong with that?
Javier Corrales: There are two ways of looking at it. One way of looking at it is that all governments in the world need to be able to provide economic assistance and in Venezuela the need was very, very huge. But the problem is that he hasn’t solved the chronic problem that produces poverty in Venezuela and that is that you don’t have a private sector that is able to generate good jobs. So in fact what he does is he kills the private sector, he makes the private sector more atrophied. And so basically it’s kind of like he ruins the engine that should produce the necessary jobs and then he comes out into the public and says, ‘Here’s a handout, here’s a refrigerator, here’s a diploma, here is a clinic. Let me give you a subsidy of some sort.’
This is a terrible problem, because the evidence is that Venezuela is an incredibly unproductive society and the only generation of income is the sale of oil. And unfortunately oil was not used to reignite the private sector; instead it has all gone to providing social assistance.
One could also say that one should evaluate these investments in terms of the return on the investment—in other words, for example, that countries like Brazil, with fewer resources, have been able to do much better with poverty alleviation than Venezuela. So there is the question of the return on investments and that paints a picture of enormous waste.
Woman (archival): Very rich people, they are making deals with the government, they are making a lot of money. Very poor people are receiving money from the government. But the middle class is suffering like completely, completely and every day you see more people in your family, in your friends, they are being robbed, dead.
Lindy Kerin, PM (archival): Workers at the station took to the streets to protest against the decision. They waved flags and chanted slogans against the Chavez government.
Employee (archival, translated): We’re going to be in the streets to make our voices heard. We’re going to express our anger and our disgust. They’re not going to frighten us and we are not going to keep quiet!
Kathy Gollan: Just looking at Chavez as a person, why is he so almost viscerally hated by certain sections of the community. What is it about him?
Julia Buxton: Well, I think Chavez is hated for a variety of reasons, but I would say the two most potent are firstly that Chavez really does represent the threat of a good example. If you are a right-wing economic elite in Latin America, in the United States, the Republican Party in the United States, the last thing you want when you’re a supporter of free trade, liberal economics, very liberal and restricted forms of democracy, is an individual who’s charismatic and popular and who comes along with radical ideas of social justice, social participation and social equity. So I think Chavez and his actions, whether you like Chavez or you dislike Chavez, is that he has presented a very, very powerful alternative to the dominant narrative of free trade and liberal democracy which the United States has sought to export across Latin America.
An alternative reason why Chavez is perceived with such antagonism within certain sectors is that they view him as being authoritarian, demagogic, totalitarian is even… some of the terms we’ve heard associated with him. Because it’s very hard to understand Chavez comes from this humble background, that he had this very kind of common, casual rhetoric with which he addresses people and talks to people. It’s a completely different class, culture and ideology and this is why so many people struggle with Chavez.
Kathy Gollan: Julia Buxton from Bradford University. During Chavez’s tenure, poverty has measurably declined, but according to Human Rights Watch, both media freedom and the judiciary are increasingly coming under pressure. And the limit on presidential terms has been dropped. A two-term limit is the norm in the Americas, but Chavez has decided that should not apply to Venezuela. Twice he went to the people to change the constitution; the second time he succeeded, allowing him to run for a third term this time. Rodrigo Acuña:
Rodrigo Acuña: Chavez is for many Venezuelans, I mean, almost a saint. And so much is centralised around his personal leadership that it’s been very difficult for other politicians within… for other ministers within his government to take prominent roles, and even for himself to allow them to have those more prominent roles, more visibility. So that’s the way he’s decided to conduct his affairs. And I would agree with you it’s not a good look, but Chavez would argue that many countries around the world do not have two-term limits, including Australia.
Kathy Gollan: But we don’t have a president.
Rodrigo Acuña: We don’t have a president; that’s true. I mean, those are the… The argument that he would make, again, is that a two-term limit is simply not enough for the project that he needs to carry. He’s said on, I think, quite a few occasions that he needs until about 2019 and that’s when he’s going to step down.
You could say that there certainly is a level, a concentration of power around him personally, and that’s where Chavez, I think, has run into problems. Because his administration has constantly been under attack, when accusations are made against particular ministers he simply just denies everything. And then a few months later, the minister such-and-such will retire because of family matters, et cetera, et cetera. What should take place is he should tackle corruption within his own government as extensively as he has attempted, and in many cases has, with the private sector.
Javier Corrales: I think countries that have had numerous crises, as Venezuela did, are always susceptible to messianic leaders who come out of the blue, are newcomers, promise radical departures from the status quo—yes, I think not just Venezuela but countries that seem unable to escape some kind of stagnation, some kind of hole. What wasn’t predictable was that once the messiah would establish himself that he would be able to consolidate power as much as he did, especially since he repeats so many of the mistakes of the past. Many of the things that he disliked of the previous system, he repeats them; you know, the lack of democracy within his own party, to give you an example, the autocratic way in which decisions are made, the inability to include opposition forces in decision-making.
So he repeats these things and he manages to consolidate power. That is the mystery here. The mystery is not so much his rise, but how successful he was to become entrenched in office and have a majority. All along he has had a majority, he has had followership. And that, I think, is… it wasn’t preordained.
Kathy Gollan: Javier Corrales from Amherst College and co-author of US-Venezuela relations since the 1990s. There’s details on our website.
And the election today? The only certainty is that it will be closer than in the past. After 14 years the president is no longer the fresh new alternative; he represents continuity and all that entails, even if it is the continuity of perpetual revolution, as he would put it.
Javier Corrales: For the first time, there is the probability that he might lose. Many signs point to a probability. Some signs still suggest that he might very well win, but there is enough uncertainty here for reasonable people to imagine that he might lose. If he loses it will not be by a large margin, so this raises the question of whether he will accept the results voluntarily. Who knows?
What is very interesting is that very recently Chavez addressing the nation asked rich people in Venezuela to vote for him, and this is what he said: ‘You have to vote for me because if the opposition wins there’s going to be political instability.’ And this was an incredibly shocking revelation, because it made people feel that if he loses and if he decides to move to the opposition that he might bring instability to Venezuela. Incredibly fascinating statement to make. It makes you wonder whether he’s a socialist or a reactionary.
Julia Buxton: I think the most crucial difference is that Chavez is obviously not in good health. We remain very unclear as to what Chavez’s health status is and his future prognosis. But what we’ve not seen in this campaign is the usual intense Chavista popular mobilisation. Chavez has not been out and about and shaking hands and embracing people in the popular sectors, which we’ve seen in previous contests.
The other important aspect of this election is it’s probably the first time that the opposition have been capable of putting forward a relatively decent and competent candidate in Henrique Capriles Radonski. But even though Capriles is young, energetic, capable—all these adjectives that have come to be associated with Capriles—the big dilemma is that we still see him being about 10 per cent behind Chavez in the election polls. It’s the narrowest race that we’ve seen in a long time, and it’s the most unpredictable election again that we’ve seen in a very long time in Venezuela. So it’s hugely unusual.
If Chavez wins, the central, primary focus of the Chavistas is going to be securing the transition away from Chavez, because there is no way Chavez can remain in power for another six years; it’s simply not possible.
Kathy Gollan: That was Julia Buxton from the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University. And our other guests were Rodrigo Acuña, a PhD candidate from International Studies at Macquarie University and Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College. The sound engineer is Jenny Parsonage. I’m Kathy Gollan and thank you for listening to Rear Vision on RN.