Report from Venezuela: Beating Back Neoliberalism

By Ellener, Steve | Commonweal, October 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Report from Venezuela: Beating Back Neoliberalism


Ellener, Steve, Commonweal


It is possible that when Madeleine Albright and other State Department officials first spoke harshly of Venezuelan presidential candidate "Commander" Hugo Chavez last spring, they had no idea he would become the nation's front-runner in this December's elections. In April, the State Department turned down Chavez's request to visit the United States to meet with multinational representatives. A U.S. spokesman stated that Chavez's coup attempt six years earlier against the government of Carlos Andres Perez had "dishonored" the Venezuelan armed forces, although the spokesman failed to explain why countless other military coup leaders have merited more cordial treatment. Chavez laughed off the visa denial and said that he would apply for a MasterCard instead.

Chavez's short political career has been marked by bold initiatives. The abortive coup he staged on February 4, 1992 against President Perez pitted middle-level officers like himself against the military establishment. The coup was immediately denounced by parties across the political spectrum, but it set in motion street protests that culminated in Perez's removal from office the following year.

Sometime between late 1997, when he took in 5 percent at the polls, and his present ranking which has edged toward 50 percent, Chavez surpassed the front-runner, ex-Miss Universe Irene Saez. Chavez, Saez, and the two other candidates now with the most popular support began their presidential bids virtually without party backing, a telling comment on the bankruptcy of Venezuela's political parties. For years, political parties here, greased by Venezuela's oil-derived revenue, have dominated the political scene, performing favors for their members but not taking into account the nation's collective interests.

The United States has good reason to be uneasy about Chavez. By declaring "I consider myself a humanist, and a humanist has to be anti-neoliberal," Chavez has challenged a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Neoliberalism means government withdrawal from the economy, leaving the nation's economic fate to the private sector. The neoliberal approach in Latin America has translated into polarization between the rich and the poor, and the absence of a strong state apparatus to cushion the impact of globalism (NAFTA-type arrangements which inundate the nation with foreign merchandise). The activist state envisioned by Chavez is a response to nearly two decades of economic instability and crisis in Venezuela, much as the New Deal was a response to the Great Depression. Such policies are a far cry from the despotic plots which Chavez's adversaries accuse him of devising.

The groundswell in favor of Chavez puts the lie to neoliberalism's favorite postulate about the "end of history." According to that notion, there are no genuine alternatives to liberal democracy coupled with a laissez-faire economy.

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