By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 15, 2005
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Standing before a battery of television cameras, President Hugo Chavez confronted the impulse to break into song and -- as often happens in such moments -- surrendered without a fight.
" Guantanamera ," he sang in confident baritone, swaying slightly to the refrain of Cuba's most celebrated tune. " Guajira Guantanamera . . . ."
Chavez was in the middle of his weekly six-hour television program, "Hello, President," which during 228 episodes has provided exhaustive insight into the man who rivals Fidel Castro as Latin America's most charismatic and controversial leader.
The Cuban love song was a fitting soundtrack for a recent episode, in which Chavez repeatedly thanked Castro for inspiring him to accelerate the redistribution of wealth in a nation where about half the people live in poverty.
Riding on a tide of record prices for Venezuelan oil, Chavez -- who has survived both a brief coup and a recall referendum -- now appears to be consolidating public support, using the economic windfall to expand social programs for the poor and to intensify what he calls a "peaceful revolution" against global capitalism.
Chavez's political relations with the United States remain as rocky as ever, and he has repeatedly asserted that the CIA is plotting to overthrow him. Domestic opponents, meanwhile, charge that his new social largess is accompanied by heavy-handed attempts to take control of the country's institutions and stifle dissent -- all in an effort to hold on to power as tightly as his hero in Havana has done for 46 years.
"He's making all sorts of changes, and he's doing it on the advice of Fidel," said Carlos Eduardo Berrizbeitia, a legislator from a political party opposed to Chavez. "He now has begun tailoring the institutions in this country -- like the Supreme Court -- to create a suit that fits only himself. The suit has the sheen of democracy, but it's not real."
With sales of 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, worth as much as $2.7 billion a month, Chavez has increased government spending by 36.2 percent this year. He has poured billions into state-subsidized grocery stores, workers' cooperatives, adult education centers and public health clinics staffed by what government officials say are about 16,000 physicians on loan from Cuba.
Meanwhile, the president has persuaded the friendly National Assembly to allow him to replace opponents on the Supreme Court, fill a dozen extra judicial seats with allies, revamp the national penal code and tighten controls on TV and radio broadcasters. In addition, the legislature is poised to give him greater control over Central Bank reserves.
The government declined requests for an interview with the president.
While critics at home and abroad warn of his increasingly dictatorial tendencies, Chavez enjoys broad support among the poor and popularity ratings exceeding 60 percent. When fans watch him on television, they don't see a power-hungry demagogue, but a defiant ally who sings when he feels like it and doesn't care if detractors say they've heard the tune somewhere before.
"They talk about human rights abuses, they say that Chavez is a tyrant and a dictator," Chavez said during his show. "They are lies, all lies."Persistent Poverty
Thousands of shoppers shouldered their way through the streets of Petare, a gritty neighborhood in eastern Caracas, dodging rain-filled potholes. Vendors under grimy umbrellas hawked virtually everything from diapers to rat traps.
Almost all the buyers and sellers were poor, or close to it. But few of them blamed Chavez for their plight.
"He's done what no other president has done before," said Carlos Romero, 49, a truck driver in a torn T-shirt and jeans. "He helps poor people."
"And he's keeping Venezuela independent," interjected Rafael Villalba, 42, who sells herbs from a street-side table. "Venezuela is the most democratic country in Latin America. You can do whatever you want here. You can say anything you want about anyone."
A crowd gathered, eager to debate. Two men, drinking beer at an open-air stand, complained that Chavez had not done anything to help them find jobs.
"It's not Chavez's fault!" yelled Viviana Caciani, 33, jumping into the fray. "Long live the revolution!"
Politics is never far from the surface in Chavez's Venezuela, even at a weekend market. On a bag of rice, an article of the Venezuelan constitution had been printed to remind buyers that the government was subsidizing such products.
An accompanying illustration showed a cartoon hero kicking a devil in a business suit -- an imperialist villain chased by a government representative who, the caption said, was guaranteeing the public's "nutritional security."
But other forms of security are harder to come by in Caracas. Despite the flowing oil revenue, crime is rampant and destitution is never far off. Some Venezuelans wonder whether Chavez will be able to sustain his current popularity level if the atmosphere doesn't change soon.
"The question everyone asks is, 'If Venezuela is so rich, why am I so poor?' " said Alfredo Keller, a pollster and analyst. "Chavez is trying to introduce profound ideological changes with the inspiration of Castro, and he has begun to advance a debate that says to be rich is bad. But that isn't an opinion many people here share."
Although Chavez rhetorically invokes such communist icons as Karl Marx and Che Guevara, Venezuela is a long way from becoming another Cuba. Billboards for products such as Pepsi and Nescafe help shape the skyline of Caracas, despite Chavez's insistence that Venezuela should free itself from the influence of global capitalism. This month, the government hosted more than 200 U.S. companies at a trade fair intended to expand and diversify bilateral business ties.
So far, the economic trends since Chavez took office in 1998 have been mixed. Unemployment in May was at 12.6 percent, 3 points lower than the same time last year, but 53 percent of households lived in poverty in 2004, compared to 49 percent six years ago, according to government data.
The president's supporters say the figures do not reflect recent increases in public spending, which have given people on limited incomes greater buying power. At one of the state-subsidized markets Chavez has opened nationwide, people lined up on a recent day to buy large bags of pasta for 50 cents and boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes for about $1.30.
Sujey Escobar, 29, a maid with two children and an unemployed husband, left the store carrying bags of rice, flour and salami that she estimated would have cost about twice as much at a regular market.
"It's still hard to find work," she said, "but buying groceries is a little bit easier."Changes for Mass Media
Patricia Poleo slipped off her headphones and stepped out of the booth where she broadcasts the top-rated AM radio program in Venezuela. A veteran newspaper editor and commentator, she is an outspoken critic of Chavez. She is also facing a six-month prison sentence for defaming the interior minister.
"The government is trying to intimidate the media," said Poleo, 39. "And some journalists are following their orders because of the new fines that they could pay."
Poleo was referring to the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, a revised list of standards for broadcasters that was passed last year and currently is being phased into practice. With that, and stiffened libel and slander laws, Poleo and some other journalists say they believe that Chavez is trying to snuff out criticism before it starts.
The changes are ostensibly designed to protect children from sexual and violent programming and encourage more variety on the airwaves. The standards now require three hours daily of children's programming and seven hours of nationally produced programming.
But some observers fear the law's instructions to ensure national security and promote Venezuelan cultural values could be interpreted broadly by a judicial system increasingly aligned with Chavez. Some critics said they already have noticed self-censorship among government critics and sponsors, who can also be fined.
Poleo said that instead of being able to sign a deal directly with the radio station where she works, she will soon be assigned a station by the government and fears she might end up with a pro-government boss.
"The idea is to force people off the air," she said.
The government insists that changes were necessary after some media outlets openly supported the 2002 coup. Instead of discouraging diversity of opinion, they say, the law explicitly guarantees it.
"All of the criticism of the law is based on supposition," said Desiree Santos Amaral, who heads the legislature's communications committee. "All of the criticism being disseminated about the law is proving that it works."
One outlet assured of getting its message across is state-run television, where Chavez broadcasts his Sunday show. Last week he broadcast from one of the education centers that he said was helping to wipe out illiteracy -- "thanks to Fidel" and the loan of Cuban social workers.
Chavez interrupted his monologue to listen to newly literate audience members read passages from the national constitution, then continued extolling the virtues of his social policies.
"The revolution marches on," he concluded several hours later, signing off with a smile.