At the recent Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, Venezuela's Marxist President Hugo Chavez was one of the centers of media attention. Poised and confident at a press conference, Chavez parried aggressive questions with almost Clintonesque self-assurance. What was his reaction to reports that the Bush administration was "worried" about Venezuela? "I appreciate their concern," replied Chavez. "I am worried about the United States, too, especially with all the problems they're facing after September 11th." Was Chavez concerned about the crisis in Venezuela? "The crisis," he answered unwaveringly, "is ending." But what about rumors of a coup d'etat? "Nothing to worry about," he scoffed. "Everything is under control."
Yet scarcely three weeks passed before a military coup ousted Chavez. A popular strike and bloodshed in the streets of Caracas -- after Chavez supporters opened fire on crowds of anti-Chavez marchers -- convinced military leaders that the left-wing elected strongman was unfit to rule.
However, two days after Chavez was removed from Miraflores, the presidential palace, he returned triumphantly from captivity to reclaim the presidency. By every indication, the short-lived coup on April 11th was Hugo Chavez' Bay of Pigs. Like the failed coup against Castro 41 years ago, Chavez remains more firmly entrenched than ever following the recent half-hearted attempt to supplant him.
Chavez is no stranger to coup attempts. In February 1992, the former paratrooper, who had formed with fellow military officers the secret Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MBR) to plot the overthrow of the government, launched a violent but unsuccessful coup attempt in which 18 people were killed. Nine months later, while Chavez languished in jail, other MBR members attempted a second unsuccessful coup.
Chavez was eventually pardoned and released from prison. He then turned the MBR into an open political movement, the MVR or Movement of the Fifth Republic. Running on a leftist populist platform, Chavez was elected Venezuela's president in December 1998. He lost no time in creating a special assembly to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution, approved in 1999. He also has moved aggressively to strengthen state control over Venezuela's oil industry. Known for his outspoken -- at times outrageous -- public persona, Chavez has called the Venezuelan oligarchy "squealing pigs."
Were those the only sins of Hugo Chavez, he'd rate no more than brief mention as yet another socialism-spewing, anti-American, third-world military despot. But during his checkered career, Chavez has developed close relations with many of America's most dangerous enemies, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, and, most notoriously, Cuba. He's also in cahoots with Colombia's vicious Communist FARC and ELN guerrilla movements, and has been linked to a number of other notorious terrorist movements such as Spain's Basque separatist group ETA.
Most alarming of all, Chavez is now trying to "Cubanize" Venezuela by means of revolutionary committees known as "Bolivarian Circles." These circles are the key to Chavez' power, and to his ability to outflank the supporters of the recent coup attempt. Alejandro Pena Esciusa, former presidential candidate in Venezuela and now leader of Fuerza Solidaria, one of Venezuela's major opposition groups, described in detail to THE NEW AMERICAN the function of the Bolivarian Circles. "Every time anyone demonstrates against Chavez," he explained, "Chavez sends his people to foment violence.... This has always taken place.... I've been the leader of four marches we organized last year. And on those four occasions, the Bolivarian circles came to harass us."
The Bolivarian Circles are apparently modeled after Fidel Castro's CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Cuban Revolution, or Revolutionary Block Committees). According to Pena Esclusa, the Chavez government has openly acknowledged budgeting millions of dollars for the Bolivarian Circles. The money has purchased both arms and training in revolutionary tactics, and the Bolivarian Circles have become Chavez' goon squads both within and without the government. By the first week of April, for example, these "Chavistas" had brought Venezuela's National Assembly to a virtual standstill. Rowdy demonstrators surrounded the assembly building and attacked legislators with rocks and bottles when they tried to enter the building to work. "We've been forced to suspend [congressional] sessions because nobody can work like this, trying to vote while knowing that armed thugs are waiting outside," assembly member Cesar Perez told the Associated Press. "The next time I go to the assembly, I'm going with a gun and a group of p arty supporters ready to support me," warned Pedro Pablo Alcantara, another assembly-man.
Chavez' investment in the Bolivarian Circles paid handsome dividends during the recent crisis. These revolutionaries were dispatched as usual to intimidate and harass the massive demonstration coalescing on April 11th. More than half a million people participated in the march towards Miraflores, according to Pena Esclusa, a leader of the march and an eyewitness of the events that followed. Pena Esclusa told THE NEW AMERICAN, "Until [April 11th], the Bolivarian Circles had never opened fire. But until that day there had never been a half million people marching to Miraflores.... The largest had been on January 23rd, when there were 200,000 people, and the Bolivarian Circles did put together a gigantic human shield. But this time, we were so many. I'd never seen so many people in my life. And the only way to stop the course of the march was by opening fire, and that's what they did." Chaos ensued as Chavez' armed thugs opened fire from the streets and rooftops, and Chavez shut down five television stations to prevent broadcasting the violence. Within hours, members of the military leadership, who days earlier had publicly pledged to stay out of the crisis, sent a delegation to Chavez to demand his resignation, which he reluctantly gave. He was then taken into military custody and an interim president, Pedro Carmona, was installed.
But Carmona, to the disbelief and anger of his supporters, immediately began to act like a dictator himself, dissolving the national assembly and promising to hold elections at a future, vaguely specified time. Says Pena Esclusa, "It was Chavez, bad guy, versus Carmona, bad guy. And what fault was it of the people who marched, that Carmona would have those characteristics? [What Carmona did] wasn't expected, was not foreseen."
The Bolivarian Circles seized the opportunity. The day after the coup, they regrouped and rampaged through Caracas, looting, burning, and assaulting, and generally sowing havoc. Not surprisingly, the police and military fought back, giving the Chavistas another pretext for "resistance." Armed gangs seized television stations and began broadcasting pro-Chavez propaganda. Certain members of the military then expressed loyalty to Chavez and insisted on his return. Facing the prospect of all-out civil war, the new government and its supporters in the military backed down, and Chavez, who had been under military guard on a Caribbean resort island, was returned to office.
Following this stunning turn of events, Chavez had hundreds of opposition leaders rounded up and arrested, and is promising to put them on trial. The Venezuelan opposition, meanwhile, is badly shaken by the unexpected reversal, but vows to continue the struggle. Furious opposition leaders, some of whom refuse to recognize the Chavez government, continue insisting that Chavez resign. "This is a facade of democracy," fumed Cesar Perez Vivas of the Social Christian Copei party. Pena Esclusa sadly summed up the situation for THE NEW AMERICAN: "The Bolivarian Circles are anxious to get back to doing what they did before. Now they want total power. And those that are against Chavez are furious that Chavez is in power again. And they're angry that Carmona tricked them.... I believe [a civil war] is possible, because the country is completely fractured, much more than on April 11th, and more decisively. That is, those who don't want Chavez are ready to do whatever it takes, provided that Chavez goes. And the Bolivari an Circles, whom he pays, and who live off what the government pays them, are ready to do whatever it takes to maintain their status."
Behind the Bolivarian Circles
Recent events in Venezuela show the power of the committee-based revolutionary model -- applied successfully time and time again by leftist dictators seeking power in the face of vociferous objections of a suspicious majority. The Bolivarian Circles, by all accounts, constitute only a tiny minority of Venezuelan society. But being a minority of ruthless, carefully trained, and well-armed thugs, they've kept Chavez in power despite widespread and deeply felt popular and even military opposition.
There's much more to the story of the Bolivarian Circles, however. Recent reports suggest that their resemblance to Castro's revolutionary committees isn't accidental. A number of observers inside and outside Venezuela have accused Chavez of inviting Cuban subversives into Venezuela to organize and advise the Circles, In a recent interview with Miami-based newspaper Venezuela al Dia, Venezuelan journalists Patricia Poleo and Ibeyise Pacheco claimed that Chavez' innermost ring of personal security is Cuban. There are also "Cuban functionaries training people in the so-called Bolivarian Circles, not only in the use of arms and in the application of violence, but also ideologically. And there are camps dedicated to this in the state of Cojedes, and military forts where [such] training is carried out. It's also done among the police affiliated with the government." Pena Esciusa told THE NEW AMERICAN that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that, indeed, Chavez is Fidel Castro's stooge in South America. "There a re many Cubans who have come to Venezuela by way of exchanges that have taken place between the Cuban and Venezuelan governments, and there have never been so many such exchanges with any government as there are right now with Cuba," he said. "There's a lot of information that suggests that the Bolivarian Circles are being advised by Cubans -- that is, they're mostly made up of Venezuelans, but their mode of operation and their advisors are Cuban." Pena Esclusa went on to disclose that during last December's demonstrations, he obtained personal evidence of Cuban involvement: "When we carried out our march on December 7th towards the presidential palace, we placed people on the other side -- that is, people who infiltrated the Bolivarian Circles to tell us how things were going and how dangerous it would be to continue the march. And those people heard among the Bolivarian Circles people speaking with Cuban accents."
Toward a Latin American Superstate
What's going on in Venezuela? Hugo Chavez, besides being a Marxist, is also fanatically dedicated to the vision of Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s. Bolivar's dream was to unite most of Latin America under a single government. Originally, Bolivar organized the newly liberated territories of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama into a single superstate known as Greater Colombia, to which he planned to add Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. But national passions rapidly undermined the alliance, especially between Colombia and Venezuela. In a vain effort to preserve the union, Bolivar declared himself dictator in 1825, only to lose prestige and see his union dissolve into separate nations.
Chavez, who lists Simon Bolivar as his inspiration (and after whom he's named his Bolivarian Circles), is apparently working to recreate Bolivar's Latin American superstate under Marxist rule. He's forged close ties with Colombia's FARC and ELN Marxist guerrilla armies, who have managed to conquer a huge swath of Colombian territory (with the aid of the United States government, which encourages the drawn-out farce of "peace talks" in Colombia and forbids the Colombian government from using -- for counter-insurgency purposes -- any helicopters and other military hardware sold to the Colombian government). Venezuela now provides safe havens for FARC guerrillas, who often flee across the border to escape pursuing Colombian troops. Chavez has also been, since 1995, one of the leaders of the Sao Paulo Forum, a shadowy Latin American coalition of left-wing terrorist outfits and political parties founded by Fidel Castro and Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the hard-left leader of the Brazilian Worker's Party and three -time Brazilian presidential candidate.
The roster of participants in the Forum's most recent confab reads like a Who's Who of Latin American Communist subversives and insurgents: the Brazilian, Argentinian, Colombian, Cuban, Chilean, Peruvian, Uruguayan, and Venezuelan Communist Parties were all included, along with Peru's Tupac Amaru revolutionaries (responsible for numerous bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations in Peru); El Salvador's FMLN, who have carried on a decades-long insurgency; Colombia's FARC and ELN; and many others. The Forum meets every year in a major Latin American city, and is directed by Castro, da Silva, former Nicaraguan Marxist President Daniel Ortega, and Hugo Chavez.
According to Pena Esclusa, "Chavez has as his political objective to turn Venezuela into a center of operations to expand the power of Fidel Castro and of the Sao Paulo Forum throughout Latin America. It's been this way since he took power." Hugo Chavez is clearly a crucial cog in a much larger machine, a new drive to "Cubanize" all of Latin America. And the Red tide is rising. Peru's Marxist insurgents, once on the run thanks to a successful campaign by Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori to defeat them, are back in the news; the Tupac Amaru were responsible for detonating a powerful bomb near the American embassy in Lima just before President Bush's visit to Peru last month. Daniel Ortega is still very active in Nicaraguan politics, and Luis da Silva is the odds-on favorite to win Brazil's next presidential election. If this trend continues, the prospect of a pan-Latin American Marxist threat might allow proponents of President Bush's own FTAA scheme to pose as respectable moderates and to advance the ir own plans for a hemisphere-wide super-state.
Hugo Chavez is an important asset for leftist internationalists who've long been working to transform Latin America into a Marxist conclave. Chavez has access to vast oil revenues and world economic leverage that Castro has always lacked. He's sold oil to Cuba at preferential rates to help keep the Castro dictatorship afloat, and he's using government funds, much of which come from state-owned oil corporations, to finance the Bolivarian Circles keeping him in power. What's more, as the current president of the Group of 77, a UN-based coalition of 133 third-world nations wielding considerable influence at events like the recent Monterrey Conference, Chavez is politically one of the best-positioned Third World leaders on the international stage.
Had the recent coup d'etat succeeded, the power base of Latin America's reinvigorated Marxist movement, spearheaded by Fidel Castro and his keepers, might have been severely undercut. But as long as Hugo Chavez remains in power, he will continue to finance and foment Marxism and terrorism abroad even as he consolidates power at home, and the peoples of Venezuela, Colombia, and other Latin American countries ravaged by debt and Communist subversion will be the worse off for it.…