In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela
Reviewed by Heather Rogers
Thursday, July 12 2001, 2:20 PM
There is a huge social experiment underway in Venezuela and few on the American left seem to be paying attention. The military is buying fresh vegetables and meat in the countryside and trucking it to poor neighborhoods for sale at subsidized markets. New state run pharmacies are selling medicine at a 30% discount. The government now provides breakfast and lunch to children at school, which helped boost enrollment by one million over the last year. These are just a few of the social reforms began two years ago with the election of the left-leaning president, Hugo Chavez. The new leader is also trying to trim the fat of corruption and graft within the government by restructuring bodies ranging from the Judiciary to the Constituent Assembly. And Chavez initiated the recent rewriting of the Constitution which now includes such provisions as civil rights for Venezuela's indigenous population.
Hugo Chavez, a former military colonel, has been criticized by Washington as dangerous and undemocratic largely because he attempted a coup in 1992. After his prison sentence was commuted in 1994, he continued working with both military and civilians to build a new political party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) inspired by Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of South America. In the 1998 general election Chavez won the presidency and his allies in the MVR took a majority in Congress.
Anyone interested in this still unfolding drama should read Richard Gott's new book, In the Shadow of the Liberator. This engaging, detailed but fast paced book explains the rise of Chavismo in Venezuela. The story opens with the insane 1989 Caracazo -- city-wide riots and looting by the urban poor triggered by IMF required price increases. The rage behind this eruption had been brewing for generations and it signaled a chance to implement changes Chavez and his people had been working on for years. Gott goes on to investigate the popular unrest -- mostly amongst poor civilians and the lower ranks of the military -- and the key players that help fuel Chavez's eventual electoral landslide. Most impressive are Gott's up to date reporting and interviews with Chavez and many of the president's closest allies and critics.
Contrary to popular belief, the central figures in the new government are not all from the military. Take for example the compelling character of Ali Rodriquez. A former Marxist guerrilla who fought in the hills of Falcon state in the sixties, he later became a labor lawyer in the densely industrialized Ciudad Guyana. Rodriguez now serves as Chavez's Minister of Energy and Mines, in charge of the nation's enormous oil industry. By reorganizing Petroleos de Venezuela, Rodriguez has been able to flip the trend away from increased privatization toward stronger state control. With rents from oil being Venezuela's main revenue source -- they are the US's number one supplier -- petroleum earnings are crucial for the economic survival of this unevenly developed country. Rodriguez has also reinvigorated OPEC during his two years as its president. In that time oil prices have jumped from $8 a barrel to $27 bstantially increasing the country's income and spotlighting Venezuela's power on the global stage.
According to Gott, Venezuela is now cultivating a fundamentally different relationship to its oil: "More than fifty years ago, people talked of 'sowing the oil', using the oil rent to improve agriculture. This never happened, and Chavez now plans that it will." Oil revenue is the main source of funds for Chavez's "Bolivarian" development projects. Jorge Giordani, Minister of Development in charge of Cordiplan, is responsible for planning the revitalization of the country's rural economy. The development minister, once Chavez's economics tutor, worked as a radical economist and University professor before joining the new government. Giordani's Cordiplan is creating a "revolution in agriculture" by focusing development across the depopulated countryside. To provide affordable housing and sustainable jobs, the government is constructing cooperative farming communities for families. After the mudslides of 1999 which killed 15,000 people living in shanty towns on the steep hills surrounding Caracas, such options are desperately needed.
Chavez and his crew are taking on the inequities in Venezuela's system. With 80% of the population living in poverty, that's no small feat. Richard Gott's book is one of the only places readers concerned with social justice can find out about the hopeful experiments underway in Venezuela.
In the Shadow of the Liberator is available from Verso
Heather Rogers has just returned from Venezuela where she was investigating politics, beaches, fruit bats and rum.