Hugo Chavez and Petro Populism

Article excerpt

The views from the slopes of Barrio San Agustin del Sur are spectacular. Tight passageways frame Caracas and the lush, cloud-draped Avila Mountain beyond. Along the neighborhood's rough cement steps, teenagers lounge around, flirting, arguing or lost in the cheap text-messaging functions of their cell phones. Ascending a nearby cliff is a small garbage dump. From afar its refuse looks like the sand in some ominous urban hourglass.

Illiteracy, violence, disease and the listlessness of endemic unemployment have shaped the life of this barrio since landless squatters from the countryside first settled it about forty years ago. But much of that could be changing.

"Even though we have had problems, we are moving forward," says Carmen Guerrero, a woman in her late 40s who is one of San Agustin's most dedicated activists. "Here, we are all with President Chavez. Everybody except for maybe six families."

On the yellow walls of her living room are masks in the form of fashionable ladies' faces, a clock, a mirror and a small picture of Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez Frias. Guerrero explains that she and her neighbors are studying in several government-created programs called missions and organizing themselves into committees to deal with everything from local and national election campaigns to sanitation and legalization of land titles.

Like most slums in Caracas, this community also has a state-owned, subsidized market, a soup kitchen, a number of small-scale cooperative businesses and a little two-story, octagonal, red-brick medical center. Upstairs two Cuban doctors live in cramped quarters; downstairs is a small waiting room and clinic.

Guerrero's neighbor, a young man named Carlos Martinez, is showing me around; he works with the local construction cooperative. They have a contract from the mayor's office to lay new drainage pipe in the barrio. Given the recent flooding, it is an important task. Later he shows me where a patch of ranchos--dirt-floored shacks made of corrugated tin and wood--are being replaced at government expense by solid, two-story brick homes.

For this little barrio and a thousand others like it, such changes mean a lot. Like two generations of Venezuelan politicians before him, Chavez has pledged sembrar el petroleo--to sow the oil. That is, to invest its profits in a way that transforms the very structure of Venezuela's economy. But what would that entail? Are social programs enough?

Lately Chavez has been talking about a "revolution within the revolution," about "transcending capitalism" and about "building a socialism for the twenty-first century." It is a discourse that frightens his enemies, electrifies his base and inspires the left throughout Latin America. After two decades of the US-promoted Washington Consensus--a cocktail of radical privatization, open markets and severe fiscal austerity--Latin America is an economic disaster marked by increasing poverty and inequality.

Taken as a whole and controlling for inflation, Latin America has grown little since the mid-1980s and hardly at all in the past seven years. With the entire region primed for social change, a new breed of populists and social democrats is coming to power. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, in addition to Venezuela, have leftist governments of some sort, while Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru will hold presidential elections in 2006.

But a closer look at Venezuela reveals just how vexing and complicated a political and economic turn to the left can be, even in a country that is rich with oil and not deeply indebted.

Thus far, Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution, named for South America's nineteenth-century liberator, Simon Bolivar, has deepened and politicized a pre-existing tradition of Venezuelan populism. Despite Chavez's often radical discourse, the government has not engaged in mass expropriations of private fortunes, even agricultural ones, nor plowed huge sums into new collectively owned forms of production. …