Old Choices

Article excerpt

Abstract:

When Hugo Chavez inaugurated President on February 2, 1999, it seemed that a new era in Venezuelan politics had begun. Chavez's popularity has soared since his election because he has tried to show his devotion to the people through small, primarily symbolic acts. However, unemployment and inflation levels remain near all-time highs, and it will require substantial economic vision to solve these problems. Most critically, Chavez has not formulated a proposal to address the oil crisis, the most pressing threat to the Venezuelan economy. It is necessary that Chavez substantively challenge the immense wealth of a handful of Venezuelans, especially in the oil realm.

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Headnote:

Chavez and the Venezuelan People

When Hugo Chavez was first inaugurated President on February 2, 1999, it seemed that a new era in Venezuelan politics had begun.

Chavez's rhetoric focused on aligning him with the underclass. The masses of people who had shouted "Down with oligarchy!" at Chavez's last campaign speech on December 3 were also present at the inauguration ceremony. On the stage with Chavez at the ceremony was Cuban President Fidel Castro, who received an enthusiastic welcome from the audience.

It would appear that Chavez, himself from a working-class background, has led a triumph of the Venezuelan poor majority over the powerful elite of domestic and foreign business. However, the President remains in the difficult position of having to stimulate investment while ensuring that economic wealth reaches all Venezuelans. A singular challenge Chavez faces is the issue of petroleum, the most important sector of the Venezuelan economy, accounting for 27 percent of GDP. The commodity remains a source of large profit for US oil companies and Venezuelan businessmen. In addition to promises of a "social revolution" to redirect Venezuela's oil wealth to the masses, Chavez must formulate a more coherent energy policy to serve the needs of the Venezuelan people who put him in power and who remain his political lifeline.

In 1992, Chavez led a failed coup of more than 1,000 soldiers. He was imprisoned for two years, during which he and his comrades-in-arms read voraciously and formulated their political strategy. Outside the prison, ordinary people were responding to Chavez's call by wearing his trademark red beret and demanding that he be released from jail. The popular Venezuelan leader has called his new government "neither leftist nor rightist, but rather humanist:" He is friendly with Fidel Castro, but stated before his election, "We don't want the communist model-it is not viable. But it is just as certain that we don't want the savage neoliberal model either."

Nevertheless, some analysts have painted the election as a victory for the poor majority in a broader class war. After 40 years of two-party dominance, Chavez ran on the platform of his new party, Movimiento Quinta Republica (MVR) in last year's December 6, 1998 elections. With 56.4 percent of the vote, compared with 39.6 percent for his closest challenger, economist Henrique Salas Romer, Chavez won the presidency by the highest margin ever in Venezuela's democratic history. The election returns were astounding given that Salas was supported by both of the traditionally powerful parties, nearly 300 of Venezuela's 333 mayors, and the domestic and foreign business communities.

Chavez's popularity has soared even further since his election, because he has tried to show that his devotion to the people through small, primarily symbolic acts. He has refused to accept his US$1,200 monthly salary and donated it to a scholarship fund for poor youth, and declines to use a limousine to travel. More significantly, Chavez refused to employ troops to expel destitute squatters who took over buildings and land in March 1999. "They are not invaders, but brothers in a desperate situation," Chavez told Venezuelans. …