The Education of Hugo Chávez

Article excerpt


In the spring of 1999, newly-elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent a letter to a man serving a life sentence in a French prison. Chavez addressed the prisoner (who is Venezuelan by birth) as a "distinguished compatriot," and closed by writing, "With profound faith in our cause and our mission, now and forever!" The prisoner's name was Ilich Ramirez, known to the world as Carlos the Jackal, the international terrorist who carried out an amazing string of bombings, hijackings, and assassinations throughout Europe and the Middle East in the seventies and eighties. Chavez has called the Jackal "a good friend" and is pushing to extradite him back to Venezuela. "I defend him," Chavez said recently. "I don't care what they say tomorrow in Europe."

For Chávez, the Jackal is a "revolutionary fighter," and just one in an extended family that includes Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Simon Bolivar, all of whom are Chavez's personal heroes. Indeed, Chavez's strong identification with the revolutionary left helps illuminate some of his most controversial moves - his arms buildup, his support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and why he is helping Iran search for uranium in Venezuela.

But what exactly is "the cause and the mission" Chavez claims to share with the Jackal, and what does this reveal about his vision for Venezuela? To truly understand Chavez's grand designs twelve years into what he has called his "permanent" revolution, one must return to the Venezuela of the sixties, to "the resistance," and to the guerrillas who nurtured and mentored both Chavez and Carlos the Jackal. Tracing the revolutionary path and exploring the ideas and personalities that formed Chavez reveals that the president sees himself as far more than the leader of a Caribbean nation. Like Bolivar and Castro before him, Chavez has cast his ambition across continents, and, ultimately, it is the Venezuelan people who will pay for it.

The Resistance

This story begins with a prison break.

The year is 1963. In the San Carlos military stockade in Caracas, three men sit in their cells: Guillermo García Ponce, Teodoro Petkoff, and Luis Miquilena. Unbeknownst to them, all will play crucial roles in the life of a nine -year-old boy they have never heard of: Hugo Chavez. The three men are accused of collaborating with the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) - the militant wing of the Venezuelan Communist Party's (PCV) that is waging a guerrilla war against the government.

It is the height of the Cold War, and Venezuela - home to the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East - has become a major battleground. Just five years earlier, in 1958, the country finally sloughed off its last military dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. But the infant democracy is on shaky footing. While the two largest parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian Democrats (Copei), have agreed to share power and align with the US, their coalition is under attack by the FALN. China and the Italian communists are sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the guerillas, but their biggest supporter by far is Fidel Castro. Since coming to power in 1959, Castro has been itching to export his revolution to Venezuela, a country he sees as a breadbasket of natural resources and a beachhead into South America. In addition to bombarding Venezuela with radio propaganda, Castro is feeding the FALN a steady stream of money, weapons, and military advisors.

With Castro's help, the FALN has sabotaged oil pipelines, kidnapped a US colonel, assassinated police officers, and bombed the American Embassy and a Sears, Roebuck warehouse. In one incident, an ironic Venezuelan version of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a small force led by Cuban officers is captured on the beach of Machurucuto.

While Miquilena's connection to the FALN is tenuous, it is common knowledge that Petkoff and Garcia Ponce are behind the attacks, but because of congressional immunity President Romulo Betancourt is powerless to stop them. …