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Richard Gott in Caracas

By Gustavo Coronel

07.06.05 | I have read an article byRichard Gott("Chávez leads the way," The Guardian, May 30, 2005) with great interest. He has already published a book on Chávez (In the Shadow of the Liberator, Verso, London, 2000) and a new one, also on Chávez, will be published later this year (Hugo Chávez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela). Obviously Gott is a serious admirer of Chávez and is trying hard to present him in the best possible light. A former reporter for The Guardian, Gott is also an admirer of Fidel Castro and has written a laudatory book about him. He seems to belong right in there withIgnacio Ramonet,Greg Palastand other intellectual fellow travelers and admirers of Latin American strongmen. This is, of course, his right.

The article by Gott is interesting because, in trying to be obsequious to the point of servility, he somehow manages to throw more light on the weaknesses and perversions of the Chávez regime than on its accomplishments.

In order to calibrate properly the article by Gott, we must remember that Chávez has already been in total political control of Venezuela for almost seven years. This is a longer period than that of any other elected president in Venezuelan history and is getting close to equal the 10-year military dictatorship ofMarcos Pérez Jiménez(1948-1958).

Gott's account and my comments.

The opening paragraph of his article does not sound very favorable to the regime.

He says: "Only 20 minutes from the heart of the capital city. . . . Families live in makeshift dwellings with tin roofs . . .the old school buildings have collapsed into ruin and no children have received lessons for the past two years." This description made by Gott is accurate, although it applies not only to the environs of the city of Caracas but also to all the urban areas of the country. The poverty rate under the Chávez regime has increased, according to official figures, by 10%. This means that, while Chávez has been in power, over two and a half million additional Venezuelans have joined the legion of the poor. This has taken place in spite of the US$152 billion that Chávez has received from oil exports and from doubling our national debt. Can Mr. Gott explain to us how this anti-miracle has taken place? Where has this money gone, Mr. Gott? You say that the schools you saw are now in ruins and that children have not received lessons in over two years. But who has been in charge during the last seven years? Chávez! Let me add, Mr. Gott, that abandoned street children are now more numerous than before the "revolution." What kind of a revolution is this that creates more poverty and more abandoned children?

Gott adds that: "These people came from the country to take root on those steep hillsides in the 1960's." This is also true. The governments before Chávez were populist enough to let them do it. Due to the occupation of the steep mountain slopes surrounding Caracas, especially those in the way to the airport, these hills started creeping downwards many years ago. The sewage water generated by these inhabitants has reduced the friction coefficient of the mountain rocks and promoted slow creep. As president of the Venezuelan Geological Society during the late 60's, I denounced this situation publicly but nothing was done. Chávez has also failed to remedy this situation during his seven years in power. As a result of his negligence, the creeping mountain is taking the main bridge in the highway that connects Caracas with the international airport and the sea to the point of collapse. Can you imagine, Mr. Gott, what will happen to the Venezuelan economy and social stability when, and if, this bridge falls down, due to the political cowardice and ineptness shown by several governments, including this one?

Gott goes on to applaud that "20,000 doctors are now spread around this country of 25 million people. New supermarkets have sprung up where food, much of it home-produced, is available at subsidised prices." The 20,000 doctors are mostly Cuban. Venezuelans would be happier if medical advice from them was not accompanied by political indoctrination (a strategy called "ideological literacy" by the regime). Reports indicate that over 1,000 of these doctors have already defected the ranks of the revolution, looking for political freedom. What Mr. Gott calls "supermarkets" are rather modest food distribution outlets, handing out mostly imported food, often wrapped in bags with "revolutionary" slogans. This food distribution program is already rampant with bureaucratic corruption, as you could find out if you read Venezuelan newspapers. Food production in Venezuela has dropped significantly during the Chávez regime due to the existence of rigid foreign exchange controls limiting imports of agricultural equipment and fertilizers and to the arbitrary invasions of land under production by Chávez followers who are protected by the military. The main Venezuelan social problem, Mr. Gott, is more structural in nature. Chávez has chosen a policy of handouts over a policy of systematic social improvement through education. In doing so, he is promoting a society of beggars, not of self-starting citizens. What passes for defense of the poor is really a strategy designed by Chávez to keep the loyalty of the masses by showering money on people. It is a strategy designed for short term political control, not for the long term improvement of Venezuelan society. Gott's reading of this tragic involution, which is leading us to a Haiti-like society, is astounding: "Making poverty history in Venezuela . . . involves a revolutionary process of destroying ancient institutions that stand in the way of progress and creating new ones responsive to popular demands."

Gott is right about destruction. Chávez has been very good at that. Many schools and hospitals now lack the most basic equipment. Highways, the petroleum industry, the public monuments and city symbols, the public parks, the urban landscape, are all being efficiently destroyed. The autonomy and independence of the political institutions have essentially disappeared.

Gott should have provided his readers with some examples of the new institutions Chávez is said to be creating. Let me give him some.Take a look, Mr. Gott, at the offices of the Ombudsman, of the General Comptroller and the Attorney General created by Chávez. They only exist to do his bidding, not to respond to the true demands of the people. Take a look at the mediocre Petróleos de Venezuela created by Chávez if you want to see inefficiency and corruption. Take a look at the so-called Bolivarian Universities, a sad example of fraud. Take a look at the social programs collapsing under the weight of corruption. Chávez himself is indignant at the spectacle of so much waste and ineptness (see my article in, "In Venezuela: A revolution without ethics," May 23, 2005).

The next paragraph by Gott should not be read by diabetics: "Something amazing has been taking place in Latin America . . . the chrysalis of the Venezuelan revolution led by Chávez . . .has finally emerged as a resplendent butterfly . . . that will radiate for decades to come." Frankly, Mr. Gott, this reminds me of the Venezuelan saying: "Jala pero no te guindes," roughly translated as: "Pull them if you have to but, please, do not hang from them."

Gott goes on to complain that: "Most of the reports about this revolution have been uniquely hostile . . .at best Chávez is seen as outdated and populist. At worst, he is considered a military dictator in the making." Why should he consider these reports uniquely hostile rather than accurate? To call a stromgman by its name is only factual. To call a strongman a resplendent butterfly would not be accurate. Chávez resurrected a 19th century social misfit,Ezequiel Zamora, as one of the main ideological icons of his revolution. Zamora promoted a war(The Federal War) against the "rich" and the educated that left the country in ruins.

To call Chávez a populist is not an exaggeration. Gott would only have to listen to any of his interminable harangues to identify him as one of the worst populists in modern Latin American history. To call Chávez a military dictator in the making would certainly be erroneous . . .He is already one.

Gott is flattering when he calls Cháveza "youthful army colonel of 51." Seven years and almost forty pounds after his arrival in power Chávez looks tired, swollen and behaves in an increasingly irritable and insulting manner.

Gott continues: "The viciously hostile media has calmed down and those who don't like Chávez have abandoned their hopes of his immediate overthrow."Obviously Mr. Gott is not aware that the Chávez controlled National Assembly has passed a collection of laws that severely limit the freedom of expression and which have received the repudiation of the free press and human rights organizations from all over the world. Today, publishing a "disrespectful" comment about Chávez, his family or friends, can be punished with six months to six years in prison. What constitutes disrespect? Whatever the regime feels like defining as such. In this environment of open and aggressive repression it is only logical that the media are being very cautious about what they print. The media has not calmed down, Mr. Gott, they have been gagged.

Those of us who are in the opposition still fervently hope to see Chávez out as quickly as possible. Gott obviously does not know that Article 350 of the current Venezuelan Constitution gives Venezuelans the right to rebel against an illegitimate regime that violates the laws of the land. This would not be "overthrowing" a president but simply exercising a constitutional dictum. I happen to believe that a well documented legal, political, economic and social case can be made to prove that Chávez is no longer a legitimate president.

Gott continues: "The ideology of Chávez's revolution is based on the writings and actions of . . . exemplary figures from the 19th century, most notably Simón Bolívar. . . ." Only the ignorant of Venezuelan history would define someone like Zamora as an "exemplary figure." Giving the name of Bolívar to his repressive and populist revolution is one of the main reasons many Venezuelans detest Chávez. He said in China that "If Bolívar had known Mao he would have been a Maoist" and said in Russia that Bolívar would have been a communist if he had lived at this time. This abuse of the name of Bolívar is both unforgivable to us Venezuelans and historically absurd. Bolívar was a white aristocrat, not a populist mestizo, like Chávezclaims. He led an army that included many Spaniards and other Europeans who came to fight for their ideals, sometimes against the native Venezuelans who sided with the Spanish army. In many ways the Venezuelan independence war was a civil war, certainly not one of whites against blacks. Bolívar was strongly opposed to the rule of the mob, while Chávez promotes a mobocracy. Bolívar opposed the military control of political institutions, while Chávezis militarizing our political institutions. Bolívar acted strongly against corruption while Chávezonly pays lip service to this task.

Gott affirms: "There have been no illegal land seizures, no nationalization of private companies. . . .Chávez has no desire to crush small business . . .International oil companies have fallen over themselves to provide fresh investment. . . ." Mr. Gott should do well in talking with the owners ofHato Piñero, a cattle ranch in full production and one of the largest ecological sanctuaries in Latin America. This ranch has been intervened by the Chávez regime, in order to be given over to the peasants. Hato Piñero had been dedicated by its owners, for over 50 years, to the protection of thousand of animal species, which now run the risk of being hunted down for food by people without a conservationist culture. What is most tragic is that the lands of Hato Piñero are not suitable for agriculture.

Other large landholdings are also being taken over by the government, with the excuse that their ownership titles cannot be traced to colonial times. The president of theInstitute of Landspromoting these interventions is a former nightclub stripper and secret policeman, Mr.Eliécer Otaiza, who recentlywent publicto say that: "We Venezuelans have to learn to hate the U.S.," an utterance which won him a hypocritical dressing down from Chávez.

Companies are being expropriated or confiscated. Recent examples includeVenepal, amanufacturer of paper products and the Compañia Nacional de Valvulas, a valve manufacturer for the petroleum industry. Thousands of small businesses have closed down due to the rigid exchange controls that have existed for the last four years. International oil companies, with millions of dollars already invested in the country, will suffer in silence most of the unilateral actions of the regime but no one should expect this to be a happy relationship.

Finally Gott mentions "The dissension and arguments within the government's ranks . . . the absence of powerful state institutions and the survival of a weak, incompetent and unmotivated bureaucracy' as the main reason why Chávez has mobilised the military . . . to provide the backbone to his revolutionary reorganisation of the country." With this last statement Mr. Gott seems to have proven our case.

In his article Gott admits that the Chávez revolution is military driven, not a civic movement. Chávez has already said that his is a socialist revolution. His ideological allignment with Castro has converted Venezuela in a twin state to the Cuban communist dictatorship. Almost 50,000 Cubans have already invaded our country. Cuba receives almost 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil (unpaid so far) from Chávez. Castro dictates our foreign policy. Venezuela, the rich oil country has become a political satellite of poor, backward Cuba. The small fish has swallowed the big fish!

Gott is clearly enthusiastic about this tragedy. God help Venezuela from the likes of Gott.

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