Part ideologue, part reformer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he is "a straw in the wind" and a "consequence," not a "strongman" or the "creator" of his radical plan to restructure the government and promote welfare among the underprivileged in his country. "I am the one whose time has come to play a role," said the aspiring innovator on his first visit to Washington since he was elected late last year.
Chavez spoke in colorful and dramatic images about the pain he felt from Venezuelans as he roamed the countryside on horseback and on foot after he finished a jail term five years ago for trying to stage a coup in 1992. He has vowed to be inventive in tackling the country's problems, but promised no miracles or overnight solutions. "Serious leadership is needed, not irresponsible populism," he emphasized during a breakfast with Washington Post editors and reporters yesterday.
The 45-year-old former paratroop, who has spent half his life as a soldier, plucks ideas from Abraham Lincoln, Montesquieu and John Kenneth Galbraith to give shape to his political thought and economic strategy. For the last 20 years, Venezuela was "a lie" and a country "stolen" from its people, Chavez charged, lamenting the corruption he said has left 80 percent of Venezuela's 23 million people below the poverty line.
The president said he has launched a plan called Bolivar 2000 that will merge collectives, the military and community groups into a network to provide social services. An example of these services, he said, are mobile field hospitals, which would be dispatched to remote villages and slums as if to a war zone. Chavez noted that Simon Bolivar, the 19th century hero who freed much of South America from Spanish rule, is Venezuela's "ideological banner."
While a constituent assembly finishes crafting a new constitution and plans are laid for new parliamentary elections, a people's bank has been created to give micro-credit to women in cottage industries and a special social fund has been started with proceeds from the sale of government airplanes. Asked about his economic plans, Chavez said the government budget deficit has been slashed by 10 percent and the number of ministries reduced to trim a bloated bureaucracy. He also said a banking tax has been imposed for a year and an added-value tax is planned. The Venezuelan leader also is pushing to broaden international and regional free-trade deals but has said he may ban certain agricultural imports. Profits accumulated from oil prices above $9 a barrel for Venezuelan crude will go into a stabilization fund that will finance debt repurchases, expansion of oil installations and an investment fund, he said.
Chavez said as the head of state of a neighboring country, he does not even dare evaluate the Colombian drama of narco-trafficking and its government's drive to eradicate it. "There are so many factors," he said. "Now there are paramilitary people killing civilians, women and children. There are drug traffickers and a problem of production and consumption. We must join efforts and try to act together to try to help them."
All in all, his declared endeavors seem impressive, despite concerns over an increased role for the military and plans for more state control. His views that the new constitution should reverse Venezuela's ban on consecutive presidential terms and extend them from five to six years will eventually be tested: Is he going to remain a visionary or become another politician trying to stay in office?
Colombian President Andres Pastrana was a little less sanguine about his neighbor's intentions. "I'm asking Chavez, please stay in your yard and we'll manage our own problems. We don't want to talk about internal problems in Venezuela, because we don't want them to intervene in domestic issues in Colombia," he told Washington Post reporters and editors Wednesday. "If he contacts guerrillas, we want him to tell us first."
He said negotiations with guerrillas entrenched in the jungle for 20 years will begin soon and that $50 million to $60 million is being spent on human rights training in the armed forces. "We know we have a problem in the army," he said, noting that he has tried to put more emphasis on human rights since he became president in August 1998.
Pastrana said the European Union's help is needed because chemicals used in the manufacture of drugs come from Europe, mainly Germany, and Colombia wants to raise awareness among Europe's ecologically minded leaders, since these drugs are dumped in Amazon rivers.