Venezuela: A Latin Enigma; the Recall Vote May Show Whether Hugo Chavez Is a New Version of Fidel Castro or Daniel Ortega

Newsweek International, August 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Venezuela: A Latin Enigma; the Recall Vote May Show Whether Hugo Chavez Is a New Version of Fidel Castro or Daniel Ortega


Byline: Phil Gunson

In January 1999, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez interviewed Hugo Chavez on a flight from Havana to Caracas, a month after Chavez had won Venezuela's presidential election. The Nobel laureate came away from the encounter clearly charmed by the president-elect, but he was also struck by a paradox that has puzzled many others in the intervening years. As they parted, Garcia Marquez later wrote in a magazine article entitled "The Enigma of the Two Chavezes," he felt he had been speaking to two different men. One was a self-styled visionary who had been granted "the opportunity to save his country. The other [was] an illusionist, who might pass into history as just another despot."

Garcia Marquez was on the mark. As Chavez faces a recall referendum that could bring an abrupt end to his avowedly revolutionary five-year-old government, he remains something of an enigma. That trait has fueled speculation about his likely reaction to victory or defeat in next week's voting. Should he lose, will Chavez quietly hand over power as Nicaragua's leftist President Daniel Ortega did in 1990? Or will he ignore the outcome and abolish democracy, as his good friend Fidel Castro did in Cuba in the 1960s? The evidence of Chavez's words and deeds as president can be marshaled to support both scenarios. And if he wins on Aug. 15, whither Venezuela? "It's still a question," admits a foreign diplomat in Caracas. "People are still asking that."

The 50-year-old Chavez has often warned his foes that while his revolution is "peaceful and democratic," it is also armed--and any attempts to undermine his government will be strongly resisted. That's proved true. As a former Army lieutenant colonel who tried to overthrow a democratically elected government in a bloody 1992 coup, Chavez knows about armed revolt. Yet for all the opposition's charges that he has concentrated power in his own hands and emasculated some of the very institutions his 1999 Constitution created, Chavez has not become an outright dictator--at least not yet. Freedom of expression remains intact, opposition political parties are free to operate and Venezuela's jails are not bursting with dissidents.

But all that could change if Chavez remains in power after next week's vote. And there are those in his camp who seem to think it should. William Izarra, a retired Air Force officer who studied political science at Harvard and is now chief ideologist for Maisanta Command, the president's campaign organization, contends that a victory will open a more radical phase in the Chavez administration. The period of "definition, as between reform and revolution, is ending," Izarra wrote recently for the Web site Rebelion.org. This next phase, Izarra added somewhat ominously, will be a "direct democracy," in which communities make their own decisions without mediation by politicians. Chavez, he asserted, has been won over to this vision.

Other Chavistas aren't so sure. History professor Samuel Moncada, who teaches at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, is also active in the president's campaign organization, but he pooh-poohs talk of Chavez "deepening" the revolution. "The opposition interprets that as meaning 'now come the expropriations, now they're going to take away people's cars, now we'll see executions'," notes Moncada. Instead, he envisions a period of reconciliation and dialogue in the aftermath of a Chavez triumph. And the notion that political parties will wither away a la Karl Marx, to be replaced by direct democracy, is a mere fantasy in Moncada's judgment. …

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