Chavez, The 'Polite' Socialist

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 19, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week began his third term in office promising to deepen his "Bolivarian revolution" and accelerate his country's march toward "21st-century socialism."

So far Chavez's socialism doesn't look all that different from the 20th-century variety. As he revealed last week, he plans to nationalize strategic industries, eliminate Central Bank autonomy and impose new limitations on private property and free enterprise. He also will move to absorb a television station that has been critical of his government and will bring under state control Venezuela's most important oil fields along the Orinoco River Basin in the northeast.

Not surprisingly, observers in the United States have been roundly critical. "Nationalization has a long and inglorious history of failure around the world," said White House spokesman Tony Snow last week. A New York Times editorial said that "state control is rarely an efficient way to run companies," while The Washington Post concluded that "if the history of socialism is any guide (Venezuelans will have) national impoverishment" to look forward to.

But Chavez didn't choose a socialist model because of its track record. If he means what he says -- and he seems serious enough, to the point of proposing to rename his country the "Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela"-- he chose it because he is convinced that the alternative capitalist model has made it "impossible to overcome the problems of poverty, misery and inequality."

Twentieth-century socialism didn't fare so well in that regard and it is still unclear that Chavez is doing much better. Chavez's anti-poverty programs, known as the Bolivarian Missions, have helped bring health, education, housing and basic food products to Venezuela's poor like never before. Venezuelan critics insist, however, that such programs are inherently flawed -- assembling hefty, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies that will prove detrimental to the country in the long run.

Regardless of its ultimate measure and whether historians say this experiment was a success or failure for the poor and Venezuela at large, Chavez's 21st-century socialism is different in one chief respect: It's been rather polite.

When Chavez officially launched his land reform in September 2005 on the grounds of La Marquesena, a 21,000-acre cattle ranch in Venezuela's Southwest, he televised the event live and told viewers that all but about 3,700 acres would be taken over. Most of the remaining land was to be put in the hands of a new company managed by peasant families that would receive $23 million from the government for crops, livestock and a center for genetic cattle improvements. The government compensated owner Carlos Azpurua some $3.4 million for improvements on the land and he is to receive more once the courts determine the value of the land.

Chavez dubbed this land seizure with compensation the Chaz method (named after him and Azpurua). Compared to Fidel Castro's land reform that set an ownership limit of 165 acres in Cuba or Mao's deadly Great Leap Forward, the Chaz method looks generous and courteous.

Other landowners have opted to negotiate with the government, including the British Vestey Group, which owns 10 cattle ranches in Venezuela. In 2006, Venezuela took control of two of the ranches, reportedly paying $4.2 million. One Vestey executive even thanked the government for "understanding our perspective."

The government too has welcomed private-sector involvement in its housing mission and public works projects, according to Jose Luis Betancourt, president of the country's Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

In the oil industry, Chavez is not seeking total control. Even after the multinational oil companies failed to negotiate different terms for the Orinoco projects, government officials were insisting this week that they can remain as partners albeit with minority stakes.

Why does Chavez bother with the "polite" socialist revolution?

In terms of land reform, Chavez can afford to compensate, so he does. By doing so he has bought cooperation for the long term. As Azpurua said in a telephone interview from Venezuela, he continues to disagree with the takeover, but now encourages other business owners to cooperate with the government. In terms of private-sector involvement, particularly in oil -- the engine of the revolution -- Chavez recognizes he can't do it alone.

At the end of the day, a kinder and gentler socialist revolution may buy more time and greater cooperation. But if it doesn't leave the poor better off and Venezuela with greater social and economic justice, it will have achieved nothing different than more violent revolutions before it.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


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