By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 15, 2009
CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 14 -- Hugo Chávez appears to be everywhere, in his trademark button-down red shirt or army fatigues, singing songs of love to adoring throngs or waving from a campaign truck winding through helter-skelter slums. It is campaign season in Venezuela, yet again.
In the outback, he hugged schoolchildren and reminisced about lessons learned from his beloved grandmother. In the capital, he faced the crowds to excoriate his opponents as traitors teaming up with American agents to destroy Venezuela. With Chávez promoting a referendum Sunday that could extend his presidency far into the 21st century, the message drummed into Venezuelans is simple: Vote for me, or risk calamity.
Chávez has wielded every apparatus of government, including a formidable state press, oil revenue controlled by his office and the collaboration of all but a dozen members of congress. The polls show that he has a slim lead over those who oppose his proposal to scrap term limits so he could run for office an indefinite number of times. This will be his second try in 14 months to lengthen his presidency.
"Venezuelans, you know that I live for you," Chávez, 54, told viewers on one of five state television stations this week. "Do not fail me, and I will not fail you."
In a long interview Thursday on Telesur, a state-owned station that rarely challenges him, Chávez laid out the mortal dangers facing Venezuela and his importance to what he calls a revolution. He said the opposition was "injecting poison" into the veins of the young, spreading lies about his governing and plotting against him. Rocket launchers and explosives had been seized, he said, though he assured viewers that the threat had been neutralized and Venezuelans should remain calm.
Chávez then described how, in talks with Cuba's Fidel Castro, his mentor and friend, he had come to the realization of just how vital he is to the revolution's success.
"Fidel put it very simply: 'I know how this revolution can be reversed,' " Chávez recounted. "I said, 'How?' 'Well, if something happens to you.' We discussed it on various occasions." Chávez said that if he was eliminated, his leftist movement would be irreparably divided.
Repeated over and over, the message has resonated with Venezuelans. Mesmerized by Chávez's charisma, they have looked beyond runaway crime and high inflation and believe that "El Comandante" -- and only he -- will take Venezuela to the promised land.
"God sent this man for the good of the country, and not just Venezuela but for the world," said Fanny Medina, taking a moment from listening to his long speech Thursday night in downtown Caracas. "He is so good. He loves the people so much that we cannot let him leave."
That kind of adulation prompted the president to hastily declare a national holiday on the anniversary of his 10th year in power. Businesses closed under threat of fine. With the presidents of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries in attendance, Chávez announced that Latin America had been "liberated from the imperialist yoke" and that the revolution had delivered a powerful blow to those who had exploited the poor for years.
The truth about the past is less romantic: Venezuela was a stable, if flawed, democracy, corrupt as many petro-states are but without the level of state-sponsored disappearances and assassinations common in Latin American dictatorships. As recently as the late 1970s, Venezuela was considered a model in the region -- attracting immigrants lured by the promise of a better life.
What Chávez did was put Venezuela's poor squarely in the public's consciousness. With oil prices rising throughout much of his presidency, Chávez has cut poverty in half through generous spending on a slew of "missions" that offer discounted food, primary health care, literacy programs and other assistance. Frequently blaming a "rancid oligarchy" for sacking the country's wealth, Chávez gave voice to poor Venezuelans and, critics say, uncorked seething resentments that have made Venezuela a powder keg of polarization.
"The people participate in everything. Here they do not impose on us," said Enrique Salazar, who plans to vote for the amendment. "It is fatherland or death, with my president. With him, health care and education is guaranteed."
In pleading for support, Chávez has taken to the airwaves to explain that he would like nothing more than to settle down in Venezuela's vast savannah. But the people are clamoring for him to remain in office, he says, and he reluctantly abides by their wishes.
"I am, quite simply, subordinate to what the people want," Chávez told a crowd recently. "And that is not cheap rhetoric. That is the way it is. I learned that a long time ago."
In marshaling state resources for his cause and curtailing the opposition's campaigns, Chávez is making sure he has the upper hand going into election day. Vehicles from the state oil company are used in the campaign, and many of the central government's more than 2 million workers have been pressured to attend pro-Chávez rallies. Electoral officials took so much time to approve opposition advertisements that they never aired; university students were denied permits for protests.
The government has also bristled at any hint of criticism, particularly from abroad. When Lech Walesa, the union leader who helped topple Soviet communism in Poland, was invited to Caracas by a civil society group this week, Chávez quickly raised concerns. "We are obligated to make sure Venezuela's dignity is respected," Chávez said Tuesday in comments broadcast on state television. "He can say what he wants outside the country, but not here."
After journalists reported that Walesa would be barred from entering, officials scrambled to deny it and accused reporters of lying. But Chávez, speaking Wednesday on Telesur, called Walesa "almost irrelevant, this figure." Walesa then canceled his trip, with the Lech Walesa Institute citing a lack of security for the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Another observer, Luis Herrero, a European Union deputy, was detained by more than a dozen intelligence agents outside his hotel Friday and expelled from the country after he referred to Chávez as a dictator at a news conference. Copei, a leading opposition party, had invited Herrero to Venezuela.
Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla who runs a newspaper critical of Chávez, said the government's defensive posture, coupled with Chávez's all-out campaigning, demonstrates the president's concern about losing the referendum.
Chávez reacted bitterly in December 2007 after his first loss at the ballot box, when voters turned back 69 constitutional reforms that would have expanded his powers and permitted him to run for office an indefinite number of times. Then, in November, opposition politicians won office across Caracas, its slums long a bastion of government support, and in the country's richest, most economically important states.
"As the years pass, the two forces have become more balanced," Petkoff said of the government and its foes. "Today we can say, for all practical purposes, that the country is divided in two halves, and the outcome of elections is each time tighter."