February 4, 2006

The revolution's endlessly malleable bogeymen

This line, from Hutton's take on last year's Youth Festival, got me thinking:
"When I was here in 2000-2002 I don't remember anyone using the word imperialism. The subject just didn't come up."
It's interesting to consider the way Chavez's rhetorical bogeymen have transmogrified over the years. If I remember correctly, it went something like this:
1994-1998: Corruption
1999-2000: Puntofijismo
2001-2002: The Oligarchy
2002-2004: Coup-mongering
2005- : American Imperialism
Am I missing a bogeyman here? Do the dates look about right? It would take some fairly stomach-turning research in the Alo, presidente archives to confirm - I'm just not up to it.

What's weird is the way the switchover is never explicitly justified or even acknowledged and yet, once it happens, it's absolute, Orwelian. This revolution has always been about opposing imperialism, we have never been at war with Eurasia.

February 3, 2006

Operation G2

by Juan Carlos Zapata, in Descifrado en la Calle

Cuba's G2 intelligence service has flushed out an alleged spy ring in the US embassy, infiltrated its diplomatic mission and kept its eyes on the alleged conspiratorial activities of the opposition. But G2 is unable to detect the corruption that flows through the veins of chavismo.

The Comptroller General, Clodosvaldo Russian, who will present his report at the end of the month, will surprise us with a major revelation: corruption proliferates at the local level. A huge discovery that looks more like a smoke screen to cover up the center of the corruption problem: its presence in the highest spheres of power.

Since it's an election year, the high government, CNE and the accountability institutions will keep a discrete silence so no scandal can taint the president's campaign.

Not long ago, when Chavez personally realized he had been duped with the misallocation of money for a project he had announced with much fanfare, he had no choice but to talk publicly about the deception, to order an investigation and even to say he felt like executing the military men responsible.

These are facts that the comptroller doesn't see, and since he doesn't see them he doesn't investigate them. These are the facts that G2 also takes a pass on, or doesn't care about. And these are the matters that Chavez generally doesn't address, since it's impossible he doesn't know. If the Barinas matter became an investigation, it was because Chavez felt cheated, since he'd gone as far as staging an Alo Presidente from the tomato processing plant that, despite the money allocated, was never put into operation. In other words, it was more an affront to his ego than disquiet about corruption as a real and serious matter.

Otherwise, there's no way to explain how suddenly we see such prosperous figures inside chavismo, and how moderately successful businessmen suddenly take off to become first rank economic actors. They buy insurance companies. They become partners in banks big and small. They launch businesses. They buy newspapers and radio stations and TV stations. They start magazines. They are involved in huge contracts. Aren't these signs of corruption?

It's obvious. I think it was Luis Miquilena who once said that Chavez uses corruption as a means to pressure his allies. He trades his silence and inaction for their loyalty. How many ministers and officials at the Finance Ministry have been signalled for shady practices? To find out, you don't need the Cuban G2. Everybody knows about it in the Banco Industrial, in Banfoandes, in the Central Bank, in the organizations that deal with financial matters on a daily basis. Chavez can't pretend he doesn't know about the baccanalia surrounding government deposits in private banks. In fact, he has known about this corrupt practice since the start of the revolution. He has been warned about it, there was even talk about centralizing government deposits in a Treasury Bank. But the party goes on. The trafficking in government deposits and insurance policies have yielded millions. And Miraflores knows that, and the business community knows that. In the last Venamcham survey they pointed to corruption and bureaucracy as the two factors that most inhibit the development of their businesses. Because, it's worth noting in passing, middlemen in each transaction are making off with as much as 15 and even 20% of the deal.

But the comptroller doesn't see it, even if he admitted to Panorama that "we are dealing with lots of accusations." But where are the cases? A job for G2: investigating a comptroller's office which, if it can't see the obvious scams, certainly can't see the sophisticated ones, like the capital flight taking place in spite of currency controls. Because experts have said that in the "imports" account (which last year amounted to $25 billion) there are all kinds of shady deals.

Corruption is out there. Having a party. We should note one thing. Just as corruption undermined the basis of representative democracy, adding fuel to Chavez's anti-system discourse, history tells us that corruption will end up undermining Chavez's socialist dream. Because even the reddest of revolutionaries is tempted by easy money: the great triumph of the bolibourgeoisie.

February 2, 2006


Well, for once random speculation doesn't blow up in my face. Hamas is coming, cap in hand, folks.

As The New Republic points out, Hamas can't necessarily rely on Iran for a bailout:
The secret of Iran's success [in courting Sunni support for a radical Shia regime by funding Hamas] has been to consistently support political violence in Palestine, a cause with overwhelming appeal among Sunnis in the region, while generally avoiding direct support for Palestinian institution-building--a more suspicious project that, for many hard-line Shia and Sunni Muslims, reeks of conciliation toward the Jews. Thus, Tehran broke with Arafat over the Oslo accords but revived cooperation with arms shipments during the Al Aqsa intifada. It financed a Marxist revolutionary, Ahmed Jibril, in his group's war against the Jewish state in the '90s, but it withheld some support for Hamas as punishment for its temporary cessation of suicide operations declared last year. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Assefi, was, according to Radio Free Europe, quoted in the state news agency last week as "congratulat[ing] the great Palestinian people, the Hamas movement, all Palestinian combatants, and the great Islamic umma [Islamic nation]" for "the powerful presence of Hamas on the political scene of Palestine." Yet Iran's major financial recipient in the West Bank and Gaza, Islamic Jihad, boycotted the high-turnout Palestinian elections on the pretext of their illegitimacy under occupation, and it perpetrated a suicide attack on January 19. Broadly speaking, Iran is a fickle friend to Palestinian factions and the people they speak for; Tehran's commitment to the most uncompromising ideals of the broader Middle East region vis-à-vis Palestine easily trumps the pragmatic interests of the Palestinians themselves. Iran's history with the Palestinians is therefore a shaky basis for Hamas to expect reliable support from Tehran in any state-building project.
So Hamas doesn't have that many good options. Can Chavez really say no?

"Only crazy people would think International Elections Observers are biased..."

If I had a dime for every time a chavista just plain laughed at the opposition for refusing to accept International Elections Monitors' opinions about Venezuelan elections, I'd have...well, I'd have a lot of dimes.

But, of course, rhetorical opportunism is free, and now that the shoe is on the other foot...well, you get the idea. Suddenly, Jorge Valero, Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, rants that the recommendations made by the OAS Electoral Observation Mission last December are part of an gringo smear campaign.

Now, it may well be that the widespread lack of confidence in CNE is unjustified. Opinions will and do differ. Personally I think it's partly justified but overstated, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that you can be agnostic about that question - as, indeed, the OAS and EU observer missions were - and still reach the obvious conclusion that large sections of society don't trust the system.

And, indeed, that's just what the foreign observer missions said last December. They didn't say that the opposition was right to be skeptical. They broadly hinted they thought the opposition was wrong to be skeptical, but they didn't quite say that either. In fact, they didn't take a position one way or another. They didn't have to.

And why didn't they have to? Because widespread skepticism about the electoral system, in itself, is corrosive to democracy.

And the fact of the matter is that, like it or not, fair or unfair, there is widespread skepticism about CNE. The turnout figures show that, the observer missions saw that, everyone knows that. Polls show that even many chavistas harbor doubt about CNE, so this is not even a strictly partisan question. To say it out loud is not to attack CNE - much less the country's sovereignty as some of the more excitable commentary would have it - it's merely to recognize reality.

Now, having concluded that such skepticism exists - and I can't imagine how anyone could deny that - the OAS and EU missions noted that such a state of affairs is not healthy for democracy - not exactly going out on a limb there either - and drew the logical conclusion that certain changes ought to be made with a view to reducing the level of skepticism.

Nothing more. That's all they did.

It's for taking that mild, timid, factually unobjectionable stance that they're now being decried as imperial lackeys.

Honestly, I never thought I'd long for the days when chavistas said only crazy people would question the impartiality of international election observers.

ps: what's really bizarre about this is that the anti-OAS offensive comes at the same time as the National Assembly is vowing to select a new CNE.

February 1, 2006

Powers of Invective

This one's an old link (new to me) but still worth pointing to.

Try as I might, I'll never develop Harry Hutton's genius for the searingly dismissive put-down.

All hail!

[Warning: Very English humor ahead.]

PSF of the Year

Feeling a bit puckish this morning, so I'll subject you to this piece from Venezuelanalysis.com, along with my nomination for PSF of the year. Surely the prize must go to Alex Holland, for this deliriously condescending and ignorant bit of reportage.
A Night at the WSF: Speeches as Spectacle in Chavez’s Venezuela
By: Alex Holland – Venezuelanalysis.com

Venezuelans love a spectacle. They love watching one. They love creating one. Their fanatical passion for baseball is an example of this. The crowd, the stadium, and the audience in the street create a mass energy that has to be seen to be believed.

The night after the 2006 World Social Forum ended, the Caracas Baseball team, Los Leones, won the national championship. Immediately the city exploded with celebrations. There were cheers, car horns, fireworks and even gun shots. Crowds poured into the streets.

Days before, thousands of other Venezuelans and some foreign visitors had created another spectacle. This one was about the World Social Forum, and more about the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias.

So much about the event was surreal, or maybe, “magically real.” When I have become bewildered by the extremes of Caracas, Venezuelans often tell me, “You know Isabel Allende? She is from Caracas. (!) You know magical realism? This is it.”

Inside the poliedro, the atmosphere was like the build up to a mega-star rock concert. The banner over the stage helped with this impression. It read like the name of a rock group, “The Social Movements and Hugo Chavez.”

Different musicians from across Latin America were the warm up acts. Chavez had not arrived yet. The scheduled start time was 3 and by 5 there was still no sign. The Venezuelans in the crowd did not seem to need him to entertain themselves, though.

Before the music started, they were singing, chanting, and dancing for hours. The large group of Cubans did too(!) They looked like a single, shaking, creature made up of red white and blue Cuban flags.

It all reminded me of an England football match. The fans drum themselves into a fury of excitement while they wait. They chant songs including the names of the star players wanting to see them score. The Poliedro chanted, “Chavez, friend, the people are with you!”

The foreigners were quieter, especially in the press section. Anti-capitalist and alternate media reporters from all over the Americas crowded into a corner of the stadium’s seating. International corporate media and Venezuelan opposition reporters sat quietly and uncomfortably amongst them.

A long table on the arena stage started to fill up with people. Some of them could be recognized. There was Cindy Sheehan, the US anti-war campaigner whose son was killed in Iraq, as well as Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique. There were nine more.

Just then the main act arrived. Chavez walked on kissing and hugging all the people on the panel. There was huge applause from the crowd. Chavez introduced those he had been kissing. Everybody sat.

Suddenly there was the recorded sound of gunfire and bombs. From a side entrance people appeared carrying large, black, banners with corporate media images on them. The sounds of gunfire continued.

Just as suddenly a group of dancers dressed as peasants emerged holding fake machetes, or swords, in their hands. They jumped on the people holding the corporate banners and attacked them, chopping them down.

Then people emerged with large white banners saying, “For peace and against war and corporate greed.” Everyone seemed a bit confused by this, considering the violent way the corporations were defeated. They clapped anyway.(!)

But it was not over. Now a couple walked forward into the arena. One was a heavily pregnant pale woman with a naked stomach. She was walking arm in arm with a darker man carrying a child.

Dozens of dancers in colored robes jumped in to the arena around them. They held up baskets of fruit and corn. Then they left. Chavez and the panel watched them, politely smiling but looked a bit confused. The person sitting on the other side of me said, “this is weak.”

The strangeness had not stopped, though. A Brazilian monk in brilliant white robes got up to the microphone and spoke. He urged the crowd to live with peace and love. At one point, he asked everyone in the Poliedro to hug each other. They did.

I started to think it could not get any stranger. Seeing the other 10 panelists I also thought about how much longer it was going to take. Just then, the monk stopped preaching and introduced Chavez. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and applauded.

The international notaries of the anti-capitalist movement, along with indigenous and peasant activists on the panel, were there just for decoration. (!)I thought this was strange, but was also pleased I would not have to listen to them all talk.

The Venezuelan President spoke like he normally does. Charming, totally at ease, seemingly speaking without preparation. He talked in circles, starting a topic and going off on a tangent and then returning. Rather than being annoying, this was strangely quite endearing.

The content of his speech was a mix of political denunciation, intellectual comment, needless listing and song.

The name of the event was, “The struggle of the peoples against imperialism,” and his talk was full of attacks against it. Greek, Roman and Spanish Imperialism were all denounced. Special anger, as always, was saved for the US.

George Bush is “Mr. Danger.” For attacking Iraq, Mr. Danger is the, “greatest terrorist in the world.” Chavez said the US is, “the most perverse, murderous, genocidal, immoral empire that this planet has known in 100 centuries.”

Venezuela’s oil is why, “The US wants to impose its empire on us.” The 2002 coup against Chavez was part of their, “Imperialist strategy to do this.” Chavez has apparently not given up on the US, though.

Chavez asked the audience to imagine, “what if the US government with all its resources and technology was actually sincere about the struggle against hunger and poverty. If it joined with poor governments and eliminated these things from the world.”

The Social Forum also came under Chavez’s gaze. The Venezuelan President said, “It must not become a tourist activity.” He went on to say, “We must have diversity and autonomy, but also unity in a great anti-imperialist front.”

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005, Chavez said, “many talks were occurring without conclusions. We are not here to waste our time. We must urgently build a new socialist movement.”

The reason for this was based on intellectual reflections. Through the speech he quoted anti-capitalist darling Noam Chomsky, 17th century English state theorist Thomas Hobbes, and German Socialist Rosa Luxemburg.

Chavez supported his call for urgent action by quoting from the British Philosopher Bertrand Russell. Chavez said Russell knew, “the human race is the only one that can commit self-genocide.” For this reason time is of the essence. If capitalism is left to itself, it could wipe out humanity.

The accuracy of Chavez’s other intellectual quotes was more questionable. He said the great Karl Marx also understood the danger to human existence under capitalism. Chavez said that is why, “Karl Marx famously wrote, socialism or death!”

Even if his knowledge of Marx’s writings is shaky, Chavez’s support is not. The thousands gathered in the Poliedro loved it. Applause was loud, especially at the end.

For a European like me, all of this was extremely strange and maybe magically real. It was also a bit disturbing at times. The setting, the numbers and the focus reminded me at times of some of the worst elements of my continent’s past.

As a foreign observer, I often feel torn between denouncing a cult of personality and not patronizing a people who are loving and living their politics with flair and passion.

For the pro-Chavez Venezuelans, even the critical ones, these doubts do not seem to appear. Crowds, singing, dancing and high emotions are fun not frightening. At a baseball game or a political rally they want vibrancy, eccentricity, excitement. It’s simple. Venezuelans love a spectacle. They love watching one. They love creating one.

I can't quite explain why this piece riled me up so much. Partly, it's just badly written. Mostly, it's the way it takes everything that drives us crazy about PSFs and cranks it up to 11. It's the insouciance with which he describes making common cause with people who warmly applaud the dramatized murder of their political opponents. It's the way he's more critical of Chavez for making up a Marx quote than for saying the US is the most murderous regime in the last 100 centuries. (Genghis Khan, Stalin, Attila, Hitler, King Herod and Mao surely all deserve an apology here.)

Holland knows this kind of shit is not ok. But he sits there, bemused, cheering a regime whose cult of personality he recognizes, but managing to rationalize it all away somehow.

"Sure, it's a bit crude," he seems to think, "but then, it's just so exotic this whole tropical revolution thing, so magical realist...after all, didn't you know that Isabel Allende is from Caracas. (SIC SIC SIC SIC BARF SIC!!!!!!) These Venezuelans with their strange ways...chopping up opponents with machetes!...that must be folkloric around here...well, they sure do love a spectacle...isn't it all darling? Sure, it all leaves a bitterish, Europe-in-the-30s aftertase in your mouth...but we wouldn't want to patronize the indiecitos by saying that out loud, now, would we? Heavens..."


Holland, if you're reading, try to get it through your head: what's patronizing is applying a lower standard for authoritarian-outrage to Venezuela than you do to your own country. Refraining from condemning an autocrat's cult-of-personality doesn't make you "culturally sensitive," it makes you a colaborator, if only a passive one.

One thing you did get right, though: "the international notaries of the anti-capitalist movement, along with indigenous and peasant activists on the panel, are there just for decoration."

Sorry, folks, I know posting this was cruel...couldn't help myself...

The Talented Mr. Chavez

A Castro-loving, Bolivar-worshipping, onetime baseball-player wannabe, Venezuela 's Hugo Chávez is perhaps the world's most openly anti-American head of state. With Latin America in the midst of a leftward swing, how dangerous is he?

by Franklin Foer

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of The Atlantic.


Supporters of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have elevated the political rally to one of the higher forms of recreation. On Saturday mornings, they board scores of government-provided buses in the slums and working-class neighborhoods of Caracas and journey to the urbane Plaza Altamira, the center of one of the country's richest neighborhoods and the site of many anti-Chávez protests. Amid vans blaring folk music from roof-mounted speakers, they then begin a halting four-and-a-half-mile procession through the city's concrete and steel valley toward the presidential palace. Along the way, marchers slip into restaurants, families picnic on street corners, and vendors meander through the crowd selling beer and Chávez dolls, which recite revolutionary slogans with the pull of a cord.

I attended one such march on a warm day last December. Walking behind a rusted hearse carrying a coffin on its roof, which advertised its contents—wishfully—as the corpse of George W. Bush, I followed the crowd to an imposing red stage, which rose twenty feet above the street. A cloth backdrop featured the visages of Latin American revolutionary heroes, including the Mexican Pancho Villa and Venezuela's own Simón Bolívar, who once lived near here in aristocratic splendor.

By five o'clock, the crowd of several thousand had consumed seven hours of speechifying by Chávez supporters and grown hoarse from nearly as much "¡Viva Venezuela!" chanting. It began to grow anxious for the event's promised climax, when el presidente himself would step in front of the microphones. You would wait around this long, too, and just as eagerly, for as everybody in Venezuela knows, Chávez yields incomparable entertainment.

As the sun began to set behind the stage, Chávez finally appeared. A preternatural showman, he knew better than to head straight to the podium. Instead, he walked to the front edge of the stage, one arm extended toward the crowd, the other holding a microphone. His head was topped with a big-brimmed sombrero, with blue, white, and red embellishments. An entourage of guitarists and horn players, dressed in the ruffled mariachi style, took their place beside him. Before he launched into his own hourlong fire-breathing, anti-imperialist disquisition, the Venezuelan president belted a medley of classic rancheras, a romantic genre of Mexican folk music:

I'm not a gold coin to be liked by everyone
that's the way I was born
and that's the way I am
and if they don't like me
… it doesn't matter.

The performance was characteristic. As a young solider, Chávez emceed a beauty pageant, and at certain moments in his presidency, he has resembled nothing so much as one of the hosts of the variety shows that Latin Americans adore. On his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, he spends hours recounting tall tales of his youth, reciting poetry, and conducting Dick Cavett–style interviews of left-wing guests, from Harry Belafonte to Fidel Castro. He once rode an Iranian-built bicycle around the show's set to highlight his country's economic ties to the Islamic Republic.

Chávez's antics have inspired considerable confusion. Among the Venezuelan upper classes and opposition, there has long been a tendency to dismiss him as something of a buffoon, an uneducated provincial lacking in self-control and basic manners. Washington, for a time, adopted a variation of this dismissive line. The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during the Clinton era, John Maisto, discouraged searching for significance in Chávez's bombastic, sometimes bizarre, public appearances. "Watch what Chávez does, not what he says," Maisto declared.

But Chávez is not just a clown with some oil money in his pocket. He is a deliberate strategic thinker—ham-fisted at times, but also capable of tactical brilliance.

The proximate cause of the rally I attended was a confrontation with Mexican President Vicente Fox. While Fox had joined George W. Bush in championing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a kind of hemispheric NAFTA, Chávez had proposed an alternative trade agreement that would exclude the United States. Several weeks before the rally, Latin America's leaders had discussed the two plans at a presidential summit in Argentina . Later, on his television show, Chávez showed mysteriously obtained footage of Fox making his argument for the FTAA in private. He then denounced Fox as a "lapdog of the empire," a taunt designed to highlight the Mexican president's ties to the Bush administration. "Don't mess with me, sir, or you will get stung," Chávez blustered. A diplomatic crisis ensued. Fox demanded an apology. Chávez refused to provide one. Ambassadors were recalled.

This isn't the way that heads of state normally conduct business. But Chávez wasn't flying off the handle when he uttered these insults. Nor were his comments (or the airing of the footage that occasioned them) primarily motivated by a desire to advance his trade agenda. By finding an excuse to denounce Fox as an American toady and baiting him into a response, Chávez was hoping to bolster the presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a Mexican socialist—and potential political ally—running to replace Fox (whom term limits prohibit from seeking another term).

Indeed, by some accounts Chávez's advisers have already been in touch with López Obrador to advise him, and the Venezuelan ambassador was reported to have attended meetings organized ópez Obrador's supporters. Chávez's TV stunt certainly worked in his ally's favor. While Mexicans briefly rallied around Fox in response to the attack, that moment quickly vanished. The attention of the press focused on Fox's support of Bush—one newspaper cartoon in La Jornada, a Mexico City paper, depicted Fox blocking a soccer ball flying toward Bush's head. Politicians of all stripes soon joined to cudgel the Mexican president for his cozy relationship with the United States and his alienation of the rest of Latin America, but López Obrador—who had long been the major candidate most critical of Fox—surely benefited the most. Polls conducted in late February suggest that López Obrador will glide into Fox's old office in July's election.

I asked one of Chávez's oldest friends, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, to explain this melding of buffoonery and strategic acumen. Arias Cárdenas has known Chávez since they were cadets in the army in the 1970s. Together they plotted a failed coup and spent over a year in prison. After the aborted uprising transformed both into national heroes, Arias Cárdenas turned on his old friend and ran against him for president in 2000. Now they are in the midst of a slow reconciliation. Chávez "does have a unique sense of humor," Arias Cárdenas told me, pausing to make sure that he phrased the rest of his answer carefully. "Chávez is a superb strategist. When we were in the army, Chávez took a course in psychological warfare in El Salvador. He became a big proponent of reverse psychology, baiting opponents into underestimating your strength. Chávez does this all the time. On his TV show, he might pick up a carrot and call it a beet. His opponents will begin laughing at him: 'What an idiot! He can't even distinguish a carrot from a beet.' But after the show, I guarantee you Chávez will be the one laughing. He'll think to himself, I can't believe I fooled them into talking about carrots and beets all week."

Bolívarian Dreams

During his run for the presidency in 1998, Chávez would sometimes convene political strategy meetings. The meetings were largely unexceptional, featuring quotidian tactical debates. But there was one notable idiosyncrasy: the conference table around which the meeting's participants sat always had one empty chair pulled up to it. The chair was always near Chávez. No one was permitted to sit on it. According to one of his advisers, Chávez once pointed toward it and proclaimed, "This is the chair of the liberator." He meant Simón Bolívar, who has been dead since 1830.

Hugo Chávez is hardly the first Latin American leader who has attempted to shroud himself in Bolívar's aura. (Bolívar is revered throughout much of the region; through more than ten years of armed struggle and popular exhortation, he secured independence from Spain for Venezuela , Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.) But few others have done so with the same conviction. As a young boy, Chávez memorized Bolívar's speeches and re-enacted his crossing of the Andes. "Instead of Superman, my hero was Bolívar," Chávez told an interviewer in 1999.

When he first began plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government, in the early eighties, more than ten years before the actual coup, Chávez and his co-conspirators swore loyalty to one another on a spot beneath a tree where Bolívar had famously enjoyed resting. They would call themselves the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200—200 being the number of years separating Bolívar's birth from their cadre's founding. Chávez tends to invest these sorts of personal milestones with mystical significance, noting how fate has placed them on important anniversaries in his hero's life. Alberto Garrido, one of the most respected analysts of Venezuelan politics, told me, "Chávez likes to quote a Pablo Neruda poem about how people return every one hundred years. He's perfectly convinced that he has a historic mission, which is to assume Bolívar's mantle." In 1999, Chávez changed Venezuela's official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Where Bolívar fought to throw off the yoke of Spanish colonialism, Chávez considers the United States the imperial power from which all of Latin America must now be freed. Traveling the motorways of Caracas , you can't avoid the billboards touting Bolívar's jeremiad, "The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty."

Chávez's hostility to "the empire," along with his more specific goal of purging American influence from the region, has driven his foreign policy. He opposed the war in Afghanistan and has flamboyantly cultivated relationships with members of the "axis of evil." He was the first democratically elected head of state to visit Iraq in its pariah years between the Gulf and Iraq wars. He has invited Iran to open factories in Venezuela.

His theatrics distinguish him as perhaps the world's most anti-American head of state. Chávez has described Condoleezza Rice as an illiterate, and has suggested that she suffers from sexual frustration (though he has declined to offer to help her with this problem, saying, "I don't make that sacrifice for my nation"). Bush he calls "Mr. Danger," or simply "asshole." Last year, Venezuela withdrew all of the assets that it had held in U.S. banks and transferred them to the Bank for International Settlements, in Switzerland .

Just as Bolívar fulfilled his revolutionary destiny with a gun, Chávez speaks incessantly about the coming military confrontation with the gringos, a war that he predicts will last for a hundred years. "It wouldn't bother me at all to end up on a mountain with a rifle defending the dignity of this country," he announced last November. "The leaders of this country have to be ready to make an example, even give our lives if we have to." In part, this is just rhetoric designed to exaggerate the American menace and bolster his domestic popularity. In part, Chávez is slipping into his romantic mode, as you might expect of a president who has disseminated a million free copies of Don Quixote to his compatriots. But Chávez has also closely followed the Iraq insurgency, and has called on his armed forces to learn how to mimic the Sunni resistance in the event of an invasion. That is, he wants to arm the people so they can form a guerrilla resistance.

To this end, he has begun organizing citizen militias, purchased 100,000 new Kalashnikovs, and assigned books on asymmetric warfare to his top brass. Last year, he intoned, "If imperialism ever has the idea of challenging Venezuela, it [will] have to deal with Bolívar's people." When I asked Nicolas Maduro, a fire-breathing, mustachioed Chavista who heads the National Assembly, how his political benefactor views Venezuela's relationship with the United States, he replied, "Conflict, in all likelihood war, is the future."

Bolívar briefly united a northern swath of the continent into a single nation of Gran Colombia, stretching from Ecuador to Panama. Chávez speaks of fulfilling this aborted vision, or some version of it. During the first seven years of his presidency, he has used Venezuela's oil wealth to buy himself a substantial leadership role in the region, signing deals to sell Venezuelan crude at pennies on the dollar to other South American countries. He has talked about creating a Bank of the South that would free the region from the international finance system. Last summer, he launched a new satellite news network called Telesur, which will be beamed across Latin America and is meant to counter CNN en Español. "That network provides a U.S. spin on the news," Telesur's director, Aram Aharonian, told me. In contrast, Telesur bills itself as the "anti-hegemonic network."

This anti-American bent has helped make Hugo Chávez a hero of the international Left—a title that he has aggressively courted. Long before he took over the presidency, Chávez planned Bolivarian congresses bringing together Latin America's indigenous movements and leftist parties. As president, he has built a public-relations machine to woo Americans and Western Europeans of a certain sensibility. His government has placed self-promotional ads in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He has hired staff from Global Exchange, which helped organize the massive protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, to run a Venezuelan Information Office in Washington.

This outreach has turned Caracas into a refugee camp for socialists displaced since the tumultuous events of 1989. Chávez's presidential palace harbors French and American activists. Marta Harnecker, the Chilean Marxist who wrote the seminal defense of the Cuban revolution, has an office there, too. Chávez routinely holds court with star academics and activists—from the anti-war icon Cindy Sheehan to Princeton philosopher Cornel West to the British essayist Tariq Ali—who return from Venezuela announcing the marvels of Chavismo, his amalgamation of anti-Americanism, Bolivarian independence, and Castro-tinged socialism. "We in the United States [hear] so many lies about President Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution," West declared in January. "This revolution is real."

While this kind of talk from the ideological fringe may sound like mere agitprop, the revolution is indeed real. Chavismo represents a bigger threat to American interests in the region than anything the United States has seen in decades. Not since the Cold War has America faced such a well-financed ideological competitor on its left. And Chávez has played his opening moves so masterfully—and the American government has played its so ineptly—that he may yet realize his neo-Bolivarian dream.

It is strange to find Venezuela run by a revolutionary who bows in the direction of Fidel Castro—and even stranger to find Hugo Chávez leading the revolution. As Chávez came of age in the sixties and seventies, political scientists celebrated Venezuela as an island of social-democratic stability on a volatile continent, a kind of Norway on the Caribbean . It had abandoned dictatorship for democracy in 1958, decades before most of Latin America . Civil liberties, trade unions, and political parties flourished. Oil money—especially after the 1973 price shock—allowed the government to build infrastructure and keep the economy running smoothly.

But the shock also created unsustainable economic expectations. Perhaps more important, it permitted graft to spread unchecked throughout a rapidly expanding government, regardless of which party held power. By the 1980s, lower oil prices had left the country with a corrupt government and a citizenry that was deeply disappointed with its economic fortunes. In short, Venezuela's mood in the late 1980s was in many respects similar to that of much of Latin America today.

Chávez exited adolescence dreaming not of politics but of a baseball career, as a pitcher. To get in front of Major League Baseball scouts in the 1970s, however, you needed to get to Caracas first. He enrolled in the military academy in the capital city, intending to stay for only a year. But he had overestimated the potency of his fastball, and so he stayed in the military, unintentionally landing on one of the great social conveyor belts in Latin America. More than any of its continental counterparts, the Venezuelan army transported fresh recruits from the slums to the middle class.

As a young soldier, Chávez worked to put down a persistent rebellion of armed leftists who had been inspired by Castro and were waging a mostly ineffectual guerrilla war from the hills. By his account, he reached an epiphany as he lay down to sleep in a camp run by an intelligence colonel. He heard the cries of captured guerrillas, beaten with towel-wrapped baseball bats. A moral crisis gripped him. He later told the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez that, as he hung in his hammock, he wondered, Why am I here? The next day he committed himself to joining the rebel cause. Through his older brother, a Marxist university professor, Chávez volunteered his services to the guerrillas.

For ten years, while rising through the ranks of the army, Chávez lived a double life, operating as a revolutionary conspirator under the monikers "José María" and "Che María." "He would drive five hours in a beat-up car to attend an hourlong meeting," his old friend Francisco Arias Cárdenas told me. "He led our group, because he was the hardest-working." Chávez traveled secretly—sometimes bewigged, sometimes smuggled in the trunk of a car—so that his military superiors wouldn't detect his subterfuge. The conspiracy he hatched to overthrow Venezuela's democratically elected government was dubbed Plan Zamora. And when its zero hour finally arrived, on the night of February 3, 1992, Chávez assigned himself the most difficult task: he oversaw the assault against the presidential palace in Caracas, on which the success of the whole operation turned.

Ten percent of the military had enlisted in Chávez's rebel army. On the day of the coup, the rebels seized military bases and other key positions across the country without much difficulty. But Chávez himself had no such luck. Military intelligence caught wind of his intentions, forcing him to alter his plans; then his communications equipment failed. These glitches didn't inspire the confidence of his fellow soldiers. The broad majority of the armed forces declined to follow his lead. With dead comrades already lying by his side and the high command threatening to bombard his position, Chávez pulled the plug. He told the head of the armed forces, "It's OK, my general; I give myself up."

To encourage Chávez's other battalions to surrender, the army allowed him just over a minute to address the nation on television, before taking him off to jail. Wearing his red paratrooper beret and speaking without notes, he went live at 10:30 a.m. on February 4. "Comrades," he said, "unfortunately, for the moment"— por ahora—"the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved … now is the time for reconsideration; new possibilities will arise again, and the country will be able to move more definitively toward a better future … Comrades, listen to this message of solidarity. I am grateful for your loyalty, for your courage, and for your selfless generosity. Before the country and before you, I alone shoulder responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising. Thank you." The television networks repeated this address over and over, hoping to dissuade imitators. Instead, they made Hugo Chávez a national icon. Venezuelan politicians of the time never took square responsibility for their failures, and those failures were numerous— Venezuela in the early nineties seemed on the path to economic perdition. And the phrase por ahora" provided a rare cause for optimism.

Red berets quickly emerged as trendy accessories in the Caracas slums. Celia Flores, who is now a militant Chavista and member of the National Assembly, had been a mother without political passions before Chávez's television appearance. "The next day, I began putting up posters to free him," she told me. "I hadn't really considered what I was doing. I was just moved, like I had never been before."

With the aid of new comrades like Flores , pressure mounted on political elites to release Chávez. In 1993, Rafael Caldera, an old lion of Venezuelan politics, won the presidency, in large part by exuding empathy for Chávez. Three months into his presidency, Caldera freed him. Five years later, after campaigning in the same red beret that he wore on television, Chávez won the Venezuelan presidency. He bested his closest rival by 17 percent.

What accounts for Chávez's decision to join—and quickly place himself at the center of—a left-wing insurgency? Sincere ideological belief surely played a part. The groundwork for his conversion had been laid many years before. A friend's father, a Marxist teacher in his town, used to send Chávez home with copies of Marx's writings, as well as biographies of Bolívar and the other nineteenth-century Latin American revolutionaries. "It's very fashionable to consider Chávez an opportunist," says the political analyst Alberto Garrido. "But if you look back at his biography and examine his writings, you can see that ideology is central to understanding him. He has deeply believed in a left-wing form of Bolivarianism for much of his life."

Even so, Chávez's ambition cannot be traced to ideological belief alone. One need not peer too deeply into his personal history to find the abundant and overlapping personal insecurities that drive him.

Despite his strategic acumen, Chávez has at times been susceptible to gurus, some of them charlatans, like Norberto Ceresole, the Argentine Holocaust denier. Chávez's revolutionary beliefs reached full bloom under the tutelage of Douglas Bravo, a legendary guerrilla fighter whose manifestos recast Bolívar as a great hero of the Left. These gurus have succeeded in cracking Chávez's notoriously hermetic inner circle because Chávez likes to create the impression that he is a cosmopolitan intellectual. His speeches and conversations constantly reference the likes of Galbraith, Tolstoy, Negri, and Rousseau. (To be sure, he doesn't always hit the mark, confusing Thomas Mann and Thomas More, or citing the cultural conservative José Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses as a great leftist work.)

In fact, Chávez is a country boy from the interior plains. He didn't see Caracas or the sea until after his seventeenth birthday. His longtime friend William Lara, who directs the president's political party, comes from the same region as Chávez. Lara told me, "It's like we're from West Virginia or a place like that. We don't have the same codes or cultures. City people know rock-and-roll; we don't know rock-and-roll."

When he was a young boy, Chávez and his older brother were sent to live with their grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a nearby town. (Their parents, primary-school teachers of limited means, continued to raise the brothers' four siblings.) This early separation bred complicated feelings, even resentment, in later life; he once spent two years without speaking to his mother. According to his biographers Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, when Chávez's mistress asked him if he loved his mother, he replied, "No, I respect her."

Chávez the child imagined himself as the heroic Bolívar, scaling the Andes to free an oppressed continent. He moved to Caracas hoping to become a baseball star. The need to be seen as a hero—to feel adulation—seems deeply embedded in his character. He must have been disappointed (and perhaps something more) to find himself in an anonymous military career instead. His psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos told me, "The love of the people is a narcotic to him. He needs it, the same way he needs his coffee." (At one point in his presidency, Chávez drank up to thirty demitasses each day.)

Like Bill Clinton, Chávez calls his friends late at night, with no particular agenda. After Chávez triumphed in the 1998 presidential elections, he telephoned the writer Ibsen Martínez. (In the early nineties, Martínez had written a program that Chávez adored, a popular telenovela celebrated for drawing attention to corruption and social inequities; they later struck up a relationship during Chávez's presidential campaign.) Martínez recounted their conversation to me: "My wife picks up the phone. 'It's Hugo Chávez,' he says. She didn't believe him. But it was him. He said, 'I'm calling from my motorcade.' He was describing the situation like a kid. 'I removed a black screen so that I can see my people. Look, I'll put the cell phone outside and you hear them screaming to me.'"

The Chavista Society

Chávez describes his approach to government as "socialism of the twenty-first century," a phrase borrowed from the German-Mexican theorist Heinz Dieterich, among others. This brand of socialism, its adherents claim, appreciates the failures of past revolutions, in particular the failure to create genuinely "participatory democracies." Chávez, his intellectual supporters argue, has come much closer to hitting the mark, especially since the unveiling of his controversial new constitution in 1999.

Under the auspices of that document, the president can be recalled by a referendum, and the poor can launch privately owned cooperatives, subsidized by the state. Chávez has energetically promoted those aspects of the constitution that grant more power to "the people." Many people on the street carry little blue books that contain the text of the new document. They read it on the subway and can cite its verses from memory. Seemingly every Chavista I met wanted to send me away with a copy. Even taxi drivers and maids have become constitutional boors.

The distribution of the blue books is a part of Chávez's campaign to create what he calls a "protagonist" system—one in which the Venezuelan people have a direct, unmediated relationship with their leader. But there's no mistaking the driving impulse behind the document itself: to concentrate power in the presidency while weakening those branches of government that might, in fact, mediate on the people's behalf.

The constitution trimmed the legislative branch from a potentially obstreperous bicameral body to a more easily managed, one-chamber National Assembly, which can pass legislation into law with a single vote. It eliminated congressional oversight of the military, allowing Chávez to more easily stack the army's top ranks with friendly generals. And it lifted an old provision that prevented the president from serving consecutive terms. Chávez now wants to further amend this rule, so that he can serve a third term. His most powerful political allies openly predict that he will remain in power until 2030.

Chávez's democratic bona fides have always been in question. When he emerged from prison in 1994, he went to live with an old veteran of Venezuelan politics named Luis Miquilena. A leftist, Miquilena had visited Chávez in prison and smuggled a phone into his cell. In Miquilena's small apartment, the two men could hear each other's breathing as they slept in adjoining rooms.

That's not to say they slept much. Miquilena would argue with Chávez late into the night, attempting to persuade his protégé to reject armed struggle. "Eventually, he came to see that he could succeed through democratic processes," Miquilena told me, while smoking a long cigar in a wingback chair. When I asked him about his late-night bull sessions with Chávez, Miquilena (who has since fallen out with the president) replied, "Chávez embraced democracy out of practical considerations, not theoretical ones. He came around to the idea of participating in elections for a simple reason: he believed that he could win."

To visitors, Venezuela hardly resembles an authoritarian state. Unlike Cuba , for instance, private companies abound, and a privately owned press goes about its business. You can sit in a café and listen to people loudly denouncing the president as an ogre. Chavistas will point to these facts whenever their critics begin to denounce the country's anti-democratic turn.

But that's just another example of Chávez's shrewdness: he has led the country in a more authoritarian direction only slowly, carefully calibrating his repressive measures so that they are too incremental to trigger popular outrage. When his opponents describe the prevailing atmosphere, they begin with the "Tascón List." In 2003 and 2004, petitions circulated demanding referenda to recall the president—just the sort of people-empowering action enshrined as a right in the 1999 constitution. Soon thereafter, a list of the petitioners' names and national identification numbers mysteriously appeared on the Web site of a pro-Chávez congressman named Luis Tascón. The government began denying these petitioners passports, government contracts, and public welfare. Two years ago, in a statement that he later recanted, the health minister brashly declared that any ministry employee who signed the list would be fired, "because [the petition] is an act of terrorism."

Media intimidation has begun as well. The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, passed in 2004, allows the government to suspend stations that "promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order or that are contrary to the security of the nation." The law has cowed the television networks, once devoted to dropping rhetorical napalm on the regime. Venevision, once a particularly notorious anti-Chavista bastion, is now known as the Disney Channel, for its increasing abundance of cartoons and bland newscasts.

By adding twelve new chairs to the twenty-seat supreme court, and packing them with loyalists, Chávez has begun to domesticate the courts as well. He proudly presented the new jurists like a trophy at the opening of the court's 2006 session. With the president in attendance, the robed justices rose to their feet and began to sing a favored chant of their benefactor: Uh, ah, Chávez no se va" ("Uh, ah, Chávez is not leaving").

Public opinion is far more deeply divided over Chávez than is the judiciary, and protests are relatively common. In 2002, the army high command grew nervous about the president's feints toward a fully nationalized economy, and led a coup against him. The coup temporarily succeeded, and might have endured if Chávez's would-be successor, Pedro Carmona, had not immediately announced the dismissal of the National Assembly, the supreme court, and all of the country's mayors and governors. Carmona (now ignominiously known as Pedro the Brief) succeeded in spooking the public and prompting widespread protests—and the army reinstalled Chávez just two days after removing him (but not before an eager Bush White House had tacitly recognized Carmona's government).

Since 2002, Chávez has purged the military of disloyal officers and stepped up his patronage of those who remain. He has backed off his rhetoric about confiscating private property, which had alienated Venezuela's middle and upper classes. Perhaps most importantly, he has showered Venezuela's large lower class with cash.

Chávez's base resides in the ranchos, the slums that spill down the hills surrounding Caracas. Social scientists refer to the residents of these neighborhoods as the " marginales," and they exist within informal communities, often without police services, municipal buses, stores, or even running water.

While they are not politically monolithic, many marginales have an empathic connection to Chávez, whom they already consider one of their own because of his dark skin color and folksy demeanor. His references to Jesus—"If Christ were here, among us, right now, there's no doubt that Christ … would vote for the revolution"—and his political style bear a striking similarity to those of the evangelical preachers who have acquired massive followings in the slums.

The prime conduits for Chávez's support for the poor are programs that he calls misiones ," another evangelical allusion. Chávez created them on the advice of Castro, and they mimic the Cuban approach to exporting socialism to Latin America . Castro would flood countries with resources intended to quickly heal social ills and demonstrate communist know-how. So if the poor can't get health care in Venezuela, why not invite 17,000 Cuban doctors to live and practice in Caracas ranchos? Illiteracy? Chávez has sent a horde of teachers into the barrios.

All this spending has a tremendous psychological impact on the poor, who have felt neglected and cheated by generations of politicians. Chavista investments in the slums are obvious. For the first time, blighted neighborhoods have government-subsidized grocery stores, access to the Internet, and doctors tending to their children. These improvements have translated into palpable optimism. Some polls show that Venezuelans are more sanguine about their economic future than Canadians or Americans.

Whether this optimism will endure, though, is open to question. Spending has not been designed to produce sustainable results, and there is little evidence of any coherent social policy. Cuban doctors can't compensate for the country's ramshackle public hospitals. According to the government's own official data, infant mortality increased in 2003 and 2004, the last two measured years. Over the course of Chávez's presidency, the percentage of the population earning less than $2 a day has risen from 43 percent to 53 percent.

Today, Chavez's desultory government spending and overall economic approach resembles the populism of the Argentine Juan Perón far more than any authentic socialist model. It is an incoherent mess, dependent on constant infusions of oil money, and is highly unlikely to lead to sustainable development for Venezuela. It is governed primarily by an age-old autocratic goal: the maintenance of personal power.

Chávez has always appeared more interested in "liberating" Latin America 's underclass than in actually fretting over the contours of the society that follows—the legacy he craves is that of a hero, not a technocrat. That may be one reason why so much of his attention now seems focused abroad. Perhaps his neglect of the Venezuelan economy will be his undoing. Perhaps oil prices will fall by half, which might destabilize his regime. But history suggests that oil-rich autocracies can often perpetuate themselves—through showy spending, selective patronage, and control of the military—for a very long time.

The Turning of a Continent

Chávez touts the importance of what he calls "pluri-polarity." Implicit in this notion is that Venezuela will emerge as a new regional power to counter the United States—a promise that appeals to his ultra-patriotic countrymen and helps account for his domestic popularity.

There's one obvious way in which Chávez could truly stagger the United States. Venezuela is an important supplier of oil to America, providing about one-seventh of its petroleum. Chávez appreciates the power this provides him. By touting plans to build a pipeline to the Pacific and cutting deals with Chinese and Indian energy companies, he creates the impression that he might someday cut off the United States—a move that could send American oil prices soaring as the country scrambled to find new suppliers.

But while the United States relies on Venezuelan oil, Venezuela is even more dependent on the American market. More than half of Venezuela's oil exports head north toward the Gulf of Mexico—some 1.5 million barrels a day. Over the course of Chávez's presidency, Venezuela has received billions of dollars from America in oil purchases.

Ultimately, not even a lover of Quixote dares invest too much hope (or cash) in preparing for a break with the American market. Nature has tied Chávez's arms. Venezuelan crude comes from the earth in a particular viscous form that requires specialized refineries, the type that exists in Louisiana and Texas , not China or India. The country's fleet of tankers is geared toward transporting this oil to the Gulf of Mexico , and can't be reversioned for longer hauls. What's more, Venezuela doesn't just export its oil to the United States; it actually sells the stuff there in the 14,000 Citgo stations that the state oil company owns.

None of these obstacles is theoretically insurmountable, but the barriers are so high that neither Venezuela nor its Asian customers have gone much beyond daydreaming of a new relationship. Turning those daydreams into reality would require significant planning, and the United States could simply rearrange its buying patterns—oil is a fungible commodity over anything but the very short term.

But Chávez can still wound the United States by turning his region sharply against it. While Latin America doesn't have the same strategic importance as the Middle East, America depends on it for trade and for its cooperation in stamping out narco-trafficking—both of which could diminish in a political environment where Chávez holds sway. ( Venezuela has allowed members of FARC, the Colombian narco-terrorist group, to cross freely into its territory, and a senior official within the Colombian government has accused Chávez of actively supporting the group.) And at a time when U.S. international leadership appears to many to have lost its legitimacy, coalition-building—for continued trade liberalization, for punitive sanctions against rogue regimes, for military action—has become both more difficult and more important.

Oil money is of course one source of Chávez's regional influence. Last year, he signed an agreement to provide thirteen Caribbean countries cheap financing for oil imports. He recently bought up more than $1 billion in Argentinian debt, allowing Argentina to pay off what it owed to the International Monetary Fund. (Argentina will end up paying Venezuela more than twice the interest rate that it had been paying the IMF, but that seems of little importance to Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner, who said the early repayment will allow "freedom for national decisions." Kirchner recently fired his economy minister in favor of a more leftist choice. His new foreign and defense ministers favor strong ties to Chávez's government.) Chávez has also offered to buy $300 million of Ecuador's debt, and is providing aid and lending to Bolivia. His spending is not altruistic: he is self-consciously trying to assemble a bloc of nations that can be set against the United States on matters of trade and international leadership.

But his regional influence extends well beyond the reach that his oil money provides. He has tapped into a deep vein of frustration and anti-Americanism throughout his continent, and is skillfully exploiting it.

Latin America is in the middle of a leftward swing, a reaction against the economic policies of the past two decades. These early-nineties reforms, known as the Washington Consensus, aimed to counter the continent's runaway inflation and massive debts with free trade, privatization, and balanced budgets. But despite this spurt of neoliberalism, the reformers failed to deliver on their much-hyped promise of prosperity. Not only did they fail to alleviate the terminal problems of poverty and corruption; they also helped inspire the revival of a raw populism that many Latin Americanists had left for dead.

How far left will the region swing in reaction? Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the Caracas paper Tal Cual and one of Chávez's prime adversaries, has written a book called Dos Izquierdas ("Two Lefts"). Under his taxonomy, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva represents one of these lefts, which pays lip service to Castro but adopts a more pragmatic attitude toward economics and remains committed to liberal democracy. Like European social democracy, it ultimately seeks to humanize capitalism, not destroy it—a political program that could help Latin America correct the excesses of its neoliberal experiment without entirely undermining its core economic contributions.

Chávez, on the other hand, represents a more retrograde form of socialism. His belief in strong leaders over strong institutions, his preference for patronage over careful policy, and his mistrust of some of the basic elements of the capitalist system add up to disaster for government transparency, democracy, and development.

Which of the two lefts will eventually win out is unclear. Most residents of Latin America still believe that market capitalism is the only system that can lead to development, and Lula is more popular than Chávez overall. But there's no doubt that Chavez's approach is winning adherents. Chávez may soon have close friends running Nicaragua, Mexico , and Peru. Argentina's Kirchner seems the junior partner in his relationship with Chávez, despite his country's bigger economy and military. Chávez's protégé Evo Morales has already won the Bolivian presidency, in part by following Chávez's own model of anti-American rhetoric and populist appeals. Morales has promised to decriminalize coca production and redistribute land, and plans to rewrite Bolivia's constitution this summer. Even Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia and America 's staunchest ally in South America, has appeared with Chávez in front of Simón Bolívar's home and bashed American "meddling."

Chávez's performance last November at the Summit of the Americas, held in the Argentine resort of Mar del Plata, reveals why his appeals to the leaders and citizens of Latin America have been so successful. He skipped away from the awkward group photos with his fellow heads of state, and addressed a crowd of 25,000 anti-globalization activists gathered for a "counter-summit" in a soccer stadium. He wrapped his arm around Diego Maradona, one of the greatest soccer players of all time, who's probably more admired than any politician at the official proceedings. "I think we came here to bury FTAA [the Free Trade Area of the Americas]," Chávez intoned. "I brought my shovel."

He was playing a clever inside-outside game: at the same time that he huddled with leaders like Lula and Kirchner, he used the media to go over their heads and speak directly to their radical political bases. This tactic works well because most Latin American leaders still depend on support from their own radical parties. Their activist bases still genuflect toward Havana, and constantly lament that their presidents lack Chávez's gumption. "They live in fear of Chávez turning against them, because they worry that their people might not take their side," one U.S. State Department official told me. This dynamic has given Chávez the run of the Southern Hemisphere.

The United States hasn't shown much deftness in tilting this fight between the two lefts toward pragmatists like Lula. Instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of Latin America 's recent neoliberal experiment, it has insisted on pushing forward with the FTAA—an agreement that has little chance in the current political environment. Where Chávez constantly announces new plans to distribute cash around the region, the United States continues to cut back on its aid packages. And while the Bush administration isn't about to confront Chávez seriously, it often gives the impression that such a policy is in the works, allowing Chávez to bait the United States into verbal duels—battles that reinforce Chávez's mythological version of himself.

This hardly makes him the second coming of Simón Bolívar. Nonetheless, there are unavoidable similarities between the two—including some that Chávez might not care to acknowledge. Chávez claims that his favorite book is García Márquez's historical novel about Bolívar's last days, The General in His Labyrinth. If this is true, he must know that Bolívar ended his life distraught and depressed. During his final years, Bolívar devolved from radical democrat to dictator. He both praised democracy as "the most sacred source" of power and proclaimed that "necessity recognizes no laws." When Gran Colombia failed after eleven years of struggle, during which Bolívar himself came to embody many of the oppressive qualities he'd originally campaigned against, he dismissed the continent as ungovernable and descended into a bitter senescence. He died and was buried in Colombia; Venezuela , whose populace had eventually turned on him, had made him an exile in his final years. Chávez, despite his love of poetry, never seems to utter one of Bolívar's most poignant lines: "Those who serve the revolution plow the sea."

Historically, Latin American revolution has proved to be just as futile as Bolívar imagined. Because of its peculiar political temperament, the region has swung back and forth on a dialectical rope between socialism and authoritarianism, occasionally stopping, mid-swing, on governments that combine the worst attributes of both. But in recent decades, the region looked like it might finally transcend this pattern of manic change. Widespread adoption of liberal-democratic governance and an embrace of market capitalism seemed to bring relative prosperity and genuine stability within grasp.

Chávez has the potential to disrupt this progress and revive Latin America's old political habits. According to a recent poll, only about half of the region's citizens—including minorities in Bolivia, Colombia , Ecuador, Peru , and Brazil—now believe that democracy is always the best form of government. Latin America is vulnerable, and Chávez has provided a blueprint not just for harnessing anti- Americanism but for the slow consolidation of power. Along the way, he may succeed in baiting the United States into a rhetorical fight that it can't win, and impeding its international leadership. But ultimately, the United States will not be the biggest loser in the battle Chávez is waging. It will never suffer nearly as much as the people of the continent he dreams of liberating.

January 31, 2006

No idea is too discredited to revive...

For years now the government has been yabbering on about something called "endogenous development" and the whole time I've been scratching my head wondering what the hell that actually means. The Chavez propaganda efforts in this regard hardly clear things up: they're a lot clearer on what "endogenous development" is not than on what it is.

At least I took solace from one of the bullet-points: "Endogenous development is not an import-substitution model." Except, then, I read this Bloomberg piece, and realized that when they say "endogenous development is not an import-substitution model" what they really mean - and it takes superior hermeneutic skills to crack this one - is "endogenous development is an import-substitution model."

Venezuela to Spend $3.25 Bln on 11 State Industries
Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez plans to spend $3.25 billion to create 11 state companies that will produce goods ranging from cotton to steel, part of an effort to create jobs and reduce imports.

The businesses will include a new state steel mill, an aluminum-laminating company and ventures in cotton, iron ore, mining, cement and paper pulp, Chavez said in a three-hour televised address in Caracas. Chavez said the companies will create jobs while furthering the South American country's socialist revolution.

``Zero corruption! Zero bureaucracy,'' Chavez said of the new companies. ``They won't have air-conditioned buildings. I'd prefer they be operating out of camps in the country.''

Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest crude exporter, imports about 70 percent of the goods it consumes. Chavez pledged this month to invest oil revenue in ventures that would help develop the nation's industries.

Basic Industries and Mining Minister Victor Alvarez said the new companies will create as many as 5,000 jobs.

``Many of the products will replace imports,'' Alvarez said during remarks before Chavez spoke.

The 11 companies will be part of the country's new heavy industries holding company, Compañía Nacional de Industrias Básicas.

The money for the investments will come from a special spending fund of international reserves created by the government last year, Chavez said. The fund has about $7.9 billion in it now, and $5 billion more could be transferred to it this year, he said.

How screwed up is this idea? Let me count the ways:

  • Import substitution industrialization (ISI) has been thoroughly discredited as a development strategy for at least 20 years.

  • Venezuela's experience with ISI was worse than most. The giant ISI projects built in Guayana in the 1970s yielded consistent losses, became hotbeds of corruption, and sucked up huge amounts of money that could've been used far more productively.

  • Because of the Venezuelan state's deep petrodollar-filled pockets, the absence of a hard budget constraint facing state industries is especially prone to generating to massive waste - the government can always afford to keep bailing out failing state industries rather than face the political costs of letting them fail. There's no particular reason to think that the neopopulist chavistas will be less willing to keep pouring money into wasteful ISI projects than the paleopopulist adecos.

  • In the zero-oversight atmosphere created by Chavez's practically-embalmed Comptroller General, can anyone doubt that corruption will flourish around these projects?

  • The financing for these soon-to-be money pits will come out of...you guessed it, "excess foreign reserves." As I've explained elsewhere, the concept of "excess foreign reserves" is economically nonsensical. Leaving that aside for the moment, a plan to use "excess reserves" to fund projects inside Venezuela violates the agreement the government had reached with the Central Bank to only spend "excess reserves" for dollar-denominated imports, not for bolivar-denominated domestic spending. Using "excess reserves" inside the country is tantamount to printing money, so the plan is not only bad industrial policy, it's even worse monetary policy.

  • Our very own OW does a little bit of a back of the envelop calculation and figures out that if you're planning to spend $3.5 billion to create 5,000 jobs, that works out to a cool $700,000 per job. And that's IF they manage to hit their budget and job creation targets.

  • Sometimes it seems like Chavez is determined to revive ALL the discredited policies of the past, one by one, one after the other.

    Super-snazzy new poll software...

    January 30, 2006

    Pieces of the Puzzle

    Translated from Tamoa's piece...

    Police Officers
    "Still up there"
    Two witnesses, a man and a woman, students at the Iupolc Police Academy, were walking towards the metro after class when they heard two police motorcycle agents on the radio saying: "the yellow SUV is still up there." That was the color of the Toyota Anderson was using.

    Disip Operation
    They let him through
    At the start of Las Ciencias avenue in Los Chaguaramos there was a mobile Disip checkpoint on the night of the murder. One witness described how he was not allowed to use that street on the night of the murder, but Anderson's SUV, which was behind him, was let through.

    Sócrates Tiniacos
    The Money Trail
    In the disputed official interview reports, he explained how they took the money from Danilo;s safe on the evening of his death, one hour after the explosion, when the body was still in its SUV. They took it to Coche and he got it back a few days later. He said he had been present when money changed hands. Later he denied everything and was backed by the Prosecutor General, "I haven't seen a single bill." His claims of torture have not been investigated either.

    Ángel Farías
    Danilo's assistant is described in the interview reports as a witness of the money handovers of his boss with the lawyers that were allegedly paying him off. He died in a car accident on July 1st, 2005.

    Julio Farías
    Danilo's Brother in law and roommate. On the night of the bombing, he carried money, weapons and bullets taken from Danilo's safe, which he knew the combination to. Revealed in the interview reports the money's provenance and why Danilo hid it at home. Isaías Rodríguez has announced that he has "disappeared."

    Elianitza Farías
    The girlfriend
    She had lived for nine years with Danilo Anderson in a Valle Abajo apartment. On the night of the explosion she ran off to Coche and was never heard from again. She had also testified to the Fiscalia about money inside a black suitcase that belonged to her partner.

    Oliver Naveda
    Assistant prosecutor
    Worked with Anderson and shared his last meal on November 18th. According to the leaked interview reports he had received the Bs.10 million that Anderson promised his friends "so they would have a nice christmas. Has not been investigated.

    Looking Beyond the Anderson Cover-Up

    While much of the private media plays into Isaías Rodríguez's game plan by closely covering the smoke screen, Últimas Noticias' Tamoa Calzadilla keeps up the pressure on a question that seems almost quaint by now: who killed Danilo Anderson?
    Anderson Mysterybuster II: The Questions Are Still Alive
    "The CIA could want to confuse the investigation," said Prosecutor General Isaías Rodríguez in an interviewed published by Últimas Noticias on February 18th, 2005. It had been just three months since the hit that ended the life of prosecutor Danilo Anderson.

    One month earlier, this newspaper had published information on an alleged extortion network that blackmailed some signators of Carmona's decree.

    Rodríguez was then consulted about a complaint attributed to banker Arístides Maza and commented, "he didn't press any charges, he only expressed concern and alerted us, because people who were not prosecutors had brought him a notice similar to those brought to the Carmona signators, and he wanted us to investigate."

    What did Prosecutor General Rodríguez do faced with such an accusation? "I instructed Danilo Anderson to open an investigation on those people, but unfortunately he was murdered..." Meaning that, among the many cases he was investigating, Anderson was in charge of this "irregularity."

    [Note for the uniniciated: Calzadilla is pointing out that Anderson was charged with investigating his own gophers.]

    The official interview reports published by Últimas Noticias around that time dealt with people close to the prosecutor: his friends, roommate, and sister. They sketched a story of alleged meetings between prosecutor Anderson and bankers, who negotiated in dollars and bolivars.

    The police commission in charge of the investigation was changed three times, and the last to leave it was detective José Cuéllar, responsible for the line of inquiry at the time: "there's no terrorism, the motivation here is economic," he said off the record to one of the investigators then in charge of the case. At the time, some of them whispered "I will not talk to the press, but if I'm called to testify I am going to say that these reports are real, they are not forgeries." They are still waiting for the Prosecutor General's Office to call them to testify.

    Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the publication in this newspaper of "Anderson Mysterybuster," containing the first allegations of extortion surrounding Anderson, a story that was built, precisely, around those official interview reports. 18 days later, Rodríguez commented in his interview: "it's among the best reports written on Danilo...I think it's a very beautiful, very useful report, which allows us all to draw conclusions about what happened."

    On January 18th, 2006, the Prosecutor General announced that "it has been shown that the reports were forgeries" and although we cannot draw final conclusions at this point, the loose ends are not just the same as they always were, but keep growing.

    Could it be due to that maxim by Edmond Locard, the great criminologist, that says "as time passes, the truth escapes"?
    Two excellent explanatory charts published along with this article can be seen here and here. (In Spanish, I'm afraid...)

    Also, note that Tamoa was later called to testify at the Prosecutor General's Office in an effort to pressure her into revealing her sources. The charge at the time was of "leaking confidential information." Only later did it morph, in the fiscalia's mysterious ways, into the story that the actas were forged.

    *Full disclosure: Tamoa is a friend of mine - and for what it's worth, I think she's one of the gutsiest, fairest reporters in Caracas.

    Uh! Ah!: The video

    "We don't want government judges or opposition judges, but rather true constitutional judges."
    -Omar Mora Diaz, Chief Magistrate of the Supreme Tribunal.

    January 29, 2006

    Institutional Debasement in Comparative Perspective

    I normally try not to write about US politics in Caracas Chronicles because that's just not what the blog is about. I'll make a bit of an exception today, to air out an old argument with OW. This is a cut-and-paste from the comments section:
    Lets say Bush in the United States does something blatantly illegal - like ordering wiretaps with out a court order. Who is going to prosecute him? Not the Attorney General, he works for Bush. Not the Senate that in theory could vote articles of impeachment, that too is controlled by Bush's party. Not the Supreme Court, also controlled by Bush party.

    In fact, every institution in the United States government is controlled by the Republican Party - the executive (in the US that includes all prosecutors), the Sentate, the House of Representatives, the federal courts, and on down the line.

    Does this mean the United States has ceased to be a democracy? Not really. It just means that party has been winning most of the elections recently.

    Same goes for Venezuela. Chavez and his supporters keep winning elections - often by large margins. So it stands to reason they'll wind up controlling pretty much the whole government. After all, God from on high doesn't appoint judges - the A.N. does. And you expect a MVR controlled A.N. to appoint ... whom?

    Of course, the opposition could take over control of the government if it were to win some elections. Yet when it was presented with a golden oppertunity to do just that on December 4th it walked away. Which is of course why not too many people take their bitching seriously.

    ow | Homepage | 01.28.06 - 11:28 pm | #

    I think this argument silly on a number of counts. On the most basic level, using the US as a yardstick of democratic functionality is a weasly move - constitutional liberalism is badly battered in the US, something PSFs should be the first to recognize. Saying "if it happens in the US, it's ok" is a-weirdly out of step with the official chavista line and b-setting the bar way, way too low, because the US itself is badly in need of reform.

    But instead of "hey, look how screwed up US democracy is, where the president can wiretap people illegally and nothing happens to him, heaven forbid such a thing should happen in other countries" we get some version of "hey, look how screwed up US democracy is...see, comparatively, Venezuelan democracy isn't so so frayed."

    I think that's BS - the NSA Wiretapping scandal is an excellent reason for gringos to raise all kinds of hell about the debasement of their own republic, not AT ALL a reason to excuse the same level of debasement in other countries.

    (Incidentally, the NSA Wiretapping story is just exhibit N for my pet theory that the reason Chavez and Bush hate each other so much is that they're so much alike...)

    So I reject both leaders, and for the same reasons - neither of them seems to accept the basic principle that the executive branch's power should be limited by law (for Bush the pretext is "hey, there's a war going on here!" for Chavez, "hey, there's a revolution going on here!") Both have a corrosive effect on the institutional system that underpins democracy,

    But even if you accept the US-as-yardstick, the argument is still silly...it fails to capture a fundamental difference, the difference between ideological affinity and grovelling sycophancy. My problem with Omar Mora Diaz is not that he's leftish ideologically, it's that he's a yes-man, an appendage of somebody else's will. This is not the case for Justice Roberts or Judge Alito, and glossing over the difference is silly. This, incidentally, is the point of highlighting the grotesque Uh-Ah chanting episode...

    OW's argument also misses the basic sociological fact that formal institutional arrangements are only a small part of what gives institutions their vitality, their independence, and their capacity for autonomous action. With or without (the execrable) Alberto Gonzalez as AG, the US Justice Department has the kind of institutional robustness, functional independence, and non-partisan law enforcement ethos that allows its career prosecutors to act against the interests of the party in power, when the evidence merits it. So the House Majority leader can be forced to resign by judicial probes. The biggest fundraising lobbyist in town can be indicted. All because career lawyers at the Republican-controlled Justice Department had the autonomy and the institutional ethos they needed to really investigate, and they really investigated.

    And finally, there's a key detail about the US institutional system that serves to contain impunity: multiple fora for criminal prosecution. Tom DeLay was, of course, first investigated by Texas State prosecutors, not the Feds. The existence of State Criminal jurisdiction in the US prevents the situation we have in Venezuela today, where no criminal investigation can go ahead without Isaias' signature.

    To sum up - I aspire for democracy in Venezuela to work far better than it does in the US today. But even taking that as the basis of comparison, the argument is unsustainable. You can't spend half your time denouncing US-Republicans' degenerate imperialism and then turn right around and point to their corruption as evidence of democratic normality.

    Quico | Homepage | 01.29.06 - 4:46 am | #

    The development might be endogenous...

    ...but the booze is exogenous.
    Scotch sales in Venezuela grew 55 pct in '05

    CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela's Scotch whisky market, one of the world's largest, grew by 55 percent during last year and topped the previous sales record set in 2002, a top industry official said.

    Juan Valcarcel, Venezuelan brand manager for global drinks maker Diageo, told Reuters the three categories of scotch -- standard, luxury and super luxury -- showed an important expansion in a market that consumes more than 2.6 million boxes of imported and domestic whiskey per year.

    "If we compare 2005 to 2004, the Scotch whisky market has grown by around 55 percent," Valcarcel said. "At the close of 2005 we were above 2002 consumption, which was a record year."

    In 2002, the annual consumption of whiskey was 1.8 million boxes of scotch, but this declined as the result of a bitter two-and-a-half year political conflict over the rule of President Hugo Chavez.

    According to figures from UK-based Diageo, Venezuela is currently the largest consumer of whiskey in Latin America and one of the eight largest in the world.

    Valcarcel said the increase is the result of a rise in per capita whiskey consumption, an increase in duty free whiskey sales and a strong advertising campaign by distributors.

    At this rate she'll have to change her name to Lina Güisqui...