Polarized Politics in Chávez's Venezuela

September 25, 2007

On December 15, 1999, as Venezuelans voted to ratify the country's new Constitution—a Constitution drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly overwhelmingly loyal to President Hugo Chávez—the country was hit by a devastating rainstorm that killed at least 10,000 people. The coincidence of the reaffirmation of Chávez's power and the worst natural disaster of the century was too much for the President's adversaries to resist.

At a mass that Sunday, the Archbishop of Caracas, Ignacio Velasco, attributed the floods to "the wrath of God" provoked by the arrogance of one individual—Hugo Chávez. Months before, spokesmen for the Catholic Church had abandoned the hierarchy's long-standing avoidance of partisan politics by harshly criticizing Chávez and his new Constitution. They attacked what they claimed was his authoritarian style, but they were particularly incensed that the document retreated from its predecessor's unequivocal defense of the right to life from the moment of conception.

In another departure from traditional neutrality, Venezuela's main business organization, Fedecámaras, also actively campaigned against the Constitution. A number of profit-limiting measures roused the ire of the business sector, including restrictions on the privatization of oil and social security, support for job security, labor benefits for the self-employed and housewives, and a more generous system of "retroactive" severance payments. Speaking for the commercial sector, Albis Muñoz expressed fear that the Constitution pointed in the direction of a "Communist regime."[1]

The newly assertive stance of the Catholic Church and Fedecámaras on electoral matters—along with a more vocal stance on the part of the media—reflect the dramatic shifts in power and politics in Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. Corporate actors like the Church and the business sector have, in effect, stepped into the vacuum created by the collapse and loss of credibility of the two parties that had governed Venezuela for the past 40 years, the social democratic Democratic Action Party (AD) and the Social Christian Copei Party. The marginal sectors of the population, which fervently support Chávez, are now pitted against the old elites and the middle class, which since Chávez's election in December 1998 have become increasingly hostile to his government.

The polarization generated by Hugo Chávez comes in marked contrast to the four decades of alternating rule of AD and Copei which produced no meaningful differentiation between the two contending parties. This bipartisan arrangement dates back to the 1958 overthrow of dictator General Marcos Pérez Jiménez and the signing of an accord between AD and Copei (and a third center-left party which has since disappeared) called the Pact of Punto Fijo. In accordance with the deal, AD, which triumphed in the presidential elections of that year, granted the losing parties of the Pact a "fair share" of the spoils in the form of ministries and governorships in order to avoid an embittered opposition. In addition to sharing power, the parties agreed to establish a "mixed economy" with social protections and to ally politically with the United States in the Cold War. The alliance with the West meant the exclusion of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) and the left wing of AD, in spite of the heroic role played by both in the resistance to Pérez Jiménez.

The system created by the Punto Fijo agreement, a "pacted democracy" that created a certain political stability by shunting aside those who stood for "destabilizing" radical reform, had long been extolled by political scientists impressed by the stable resilience of the Venezuelan political system. But recently, everyone from Hugo Chávez to many of the once-laudatory political scientists blame Punto Fijo for establishing a pattern of exclusion that kept new actors, including emerging social groups and even the rank-and-file of AD and Copei, on the margin of decision making.[2] Chávez now lashes out at "puntofijismo" for being synonymous with elitist rule and the antithesis of the "participatory democracy" his party claims to embrace.

Actually, clear signs of the erosion of Punto Fijo democracy had presented themselves long before the Chávez victory of 1998. The mass disturbances of February 27, 1989, set off by a sharp increase in public transportation and gasoline prices under then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez demonstrated the extent to which the nation's poor resented the severe battering they had endured throughout the 1980s. An attempted military coup led by Chávez in February 1992, followed by another in November, indicated that anger had also built up in the armed forces. In the 1993 presidential elections, for the first time since 1958, a candidate who had split from the bipartisan pact—ex-Copei leader Rafael Caldera, running as a candidate of the newly formed center-left coalition called Convergencia—was elected to the presidency, and AD and Copei polled a combined vote of less than 50%. The final display of disenchantment came in the 1998 elections, in which the popularity of each presidential candidate was directly proportional to the degree to which he or she was able to convincingly articulate an anti-pacted-democracy discourse. Chávez's main opponent, Henrique Salas Römer, who had positioned himself as a centrist anti-party independent, lost credibility when, just a week before the vote, AD and Copei openly declared their support for his candidacy.

In the political battles following his election as president, Chávez adroitly exploited polarization by harping on the presence of AD and Copei in the enemy camp in order to undermine the credibility of his adversaries. Polarization over the "Yes" and "No" vote in the December 15 ratification of the new Constitution left little space for nuanced positions. "Chávez conjures up the bogeyman of old-time, corrupt politicians and political cliques, even though the traditional parties are largely out of the picture," says Eduardo Pozo, a leader of the newly formed party, Democratic Left (ID), a split-off from Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), one of Chávez's allies. ID and other groups had the unenviable task of campaigning against the new Constitution while attempting to keep AD and Copei at arm's length. "Chávez creates distrust toward people like ourselves who formulate criticisms from a progressive perspective," complained the ID leader.[3]

As this article is written, Venezuelans are bracing for yet another round of elections in which all elected offices, from the presidency down to local mayoralties and neighborhood juntas, are up for what Chávez has called "relegitimation." These "mega-elections" were scheduled to take place within two months of the December constitutional ratification, but the catastrophic flooding forced postponement. In the interim, the political landscape has been altered.

First, the added time has allowed latent conflicts within Chávez's party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), to come to the surface. The uneasy coalition between military comandantes and civilian political activists that formed the party's base has fractured, and one of the President's closest military comrades-in-arms, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, has declared himself to be a rival candidate for the presidency. Second, fissures in the broader pro-Chávez electoral alliance, the Patriotic Pole (PP)—essentially an alliance between the MVR and two smaller leftist parties, MAS and Homeland for All (PPT)—have also begun to appear.

The defection of Arias Cárdenas, the second in command during the February 4, 1992 military uprising and a key member of the MVR, changes the political landscape by creating a credible "anti-Punto Fijo" opposition. As twice-elected governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia, Arias took a hard-line approach to the clientelism long practiced by the traditional parties by deleting the names of party activists from public payrolls and even purging the state's Metropolitan Police of party loyalists. He has adroitly shunned association with the old discredited parties and has accepted endorsement only from nontraditional organizations. Despite his careful positioning of himself to the right of Chávez, he has nonetheless accepted the backing of ID, the left-leaning Radical Cause (Causa R) and even the small ultra-leftist Red Flag party.

Nevertheless, Arias faces credible charges that he is a surrogate of the corrupt traditional parties. As soon as he announced his intention to run for the presidency, the AD candidate, Antonio Ledezma, withdrew from the race. Though Ledezma firmly denies that he supports Arias, and Arias does not acknowledge his support, the candidate has received the backing of no less a symbol of the "old politics" than ex-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was impeached for corruption in 1993 and is now a resident of Miami.

Prior to Arias' exit from the Chávez camp, the polarization between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas masked a complex political setting in which both the governing Patriotic Pole as well as the opposition were deeply divided. Now fragmentation and internal conflict are very much out in the open. In the Constituent Assembly, for example, tugs-of-war between MVR delegates and many of their allies—especially the more moderate MAS—took place over articles concerning the sale of stock in the state-run petroleum company, the legalization of abortion, state control of the social security system and the revival of retroactive severance payments. In each case, Chávez urged moderation and compromise. The result was ambiguously worded articles which provide escape hatches for those resistant to change.

The roots of the MVR itself are particularly heterogeneous. Most of those who entered Chávez's movement following the 1992 coup attempts came from the periphery of a host of leftist and ultra-leftist organizations. They admired Chávez for having dared place the attainment of state power on the agenda, in sharp contrast with the rest of the left which had opted for electoral politics following the guerrilla period of the 1960s.4 Then, in April 1997, when the Chavista movement abandoned its policy of electoral abstentionism by deciding to participate in the national elections of 1998, it began to attract rank-and-file members of AD and Copei, disenchanted with their respective parties as a result of rampant corruption and the failure to devise any convincing strategy of economic development.

On the eighth anniversary of the February 4, 1992 attempted coup, Arias Cárdenas, along with two other former comandantes of the uprising, Yoel Acosta Chirinos and Jesús Urdaneta, issued a manifesto calling on Chávez to stay true to the coup's ideals. Speaking in the coastal city of Coro, Venezuela's original capital, the three comandantes called on Chávez to distance himself from certain politicians associated with the political practices of the past and to deepen the struggle against corruption. Specifically, they pointed the finger at the president of the interim Congress, Luis Miquilena, and Foreign Relations Minister José Vicente Rangel, two veteran leftist politicians who they felt had monopolized the ears of the President.

While the comandantes leveled charges of petty corruption against Miquilena, it was widely understood that deep political resentments were at the basis of the charges. During the restoration of public order following the floods, for example, Rangel had supported the investigation of alleged human rights violations committed by the country's political police who were under Urdaneta's command. Chávez showed little sympathy for his old comrades' charges and, in fact, chastised the comandantes for having gone public at the outset of an electoral campaign rather than channeling their critique internally. Nevertheless, he did commit himself to investigating 46 corruption charges formulated by Urdaneta while he was still head of the political police.

The incident reflected several very real sources of conflict. The MVR had been subject to increasing tension between those who favor a strong presence of retired and active military officers in the government and those wary of such a trend. Some MVR supporters applaud the discipline of officers as a much-needed corrective to civilian inefficiency and point to the general prestige of the armed forces in sharp contrast to the disrepute of most civilian political institutions. Others are wary of the officers' top-down style and worry about their growing influence.[5] Indeed, until the split among the comandantes the number of officers Chávez had named to top government posts was on the increase, presumably because the internal rivalry and factionalism among the civilian politicians of his movement made them less dependable. In addition, Chávez's much-touted public works program, "Plan Bolívar 2000," had been reduced mainly to the work of soldiers, and allocations for the program were channeled through the army at the state level. Finally, at the outset of the campaign for the May elections, retired military officers sought MVR endorsements as gubernatorial candidates in as many as 18 of the nation's 23 states.

The main fear of many independent civilian supporters of Chavismo—ranging in ideology from center to left—is that the Constitution goes overboard in providing the armed forces autonomy by eliminating civilian checks on the institution, thus opening the doors to militarism. Chávez skillfully calmed fears of militarization and strongman rule by naming Isaías Rodríguez, a well-liked civilian and relative new-comer to the MVR, as vice-president, a position created by the new Constitution. One of the three comandantes, Acosta Chirinos, let Chávez know in private of his disappointment that Arias had been bypassed.

At the outset of his presidential campaign, Arias distanced himself from Chávez's policies, placing himself clearly to the right of his former comrade-in-arms. "We are constructing our revolution here," said Arias in reference to Chávez's friendship with Fidel Castro, "and we do not need advice [from abroad]."[6] In a subsequent interview he stated, "I am not going to abandon Bolívar for Castro."[7] More important, Arias and those closest to him have criticized Chávez's redistributive policies and conflictive style for scaring off the foreign capital so badly needed to revitalize the economy.

Arias' criticisms of the government have not been the only ones to originate from within the ranks of Chavismo. One of the movement's strengths has been its success in drawing in nationally prestigious figures of distinct political outlooks, and Chávez has boasted from the outset of the ideological heterogeneity of his movement, including, he says, both "leftists" and "rightists."[8] During the constitutional debates, for example, some of Chávez's supporters, such as journalist-turned-politician Alfredo Peña, felt that plans for privatization were moving too slowly and opposed the proposed constitutional ban on the sale of state oil company stock. Following the flooding in December, Peña called for the privatization of the international airport and port facilities in the state of Vargas, just outside of Caracas, in order to accelerate the area's recovery. Peña formulated these and other proposals at the risk of being called, in his words, "an addict of neoliberalism."[9]

The differences within the Patriotic Pole have persisted because no mechanisms exist to bridge them or to arrive at common goals and a common platform. The proposal formulated last year by PP coordinator Eustoquio Contreras to coalesce into one party fell on deaf ears. Recently, the leftist PPT, irked by the unwillingness of MVR leaders to back three of its incumbent governors for re-election, has formally dropped out of the alliance. The PPT continued to endorse Chávez as well as the Pole's gubernatorial candidates in eight states until May 15, when party leaders announced that Chávez's hostility toward their candidates had forced them to withdraw their support for Chávez in the May 28 election

As for MAS, a last-minute agreement with MVR granting it three gubernatorial candidacies avoided a similar rupture, although MAS supporters are campaigning for the group's own slates in various states. That the pro-leftist PPT, which shares a vision of radical change with the MVR, was shunted aside and not the more pragmatic MAS is telling. The electoral calculations of each party combined with the personal ambition of its leaders—rather than ideological commitment—is the order of the day.

The Pole's fragmentation has cut into Chávez's following, though he still leads Arias Cárdenas in the polls. Chávez has maintained his popularity despite the deepening economic crisis—unemployment reached 18% last year, the highest rate in fifteen years—an auspicious sign for any politician. While the economies of many other Latin American nations have partially recovered from the contraction of the 1980s, that of Venezuela has remained in a continued slump, during which time increasing numbers of the working class—and former members of the shrinking middle class—have only been able to find work in the informal sector. Chávez's support is concentrated in the poor urban barrios, where the majority of the nation's population now resides.

Chávez's willingness to engage in dialogue with squatters and his boldness in threatening to expropriate unused land for industrial and agricultural purposes are popular with the poor. At the same time, his audacity in questioning the sacredness of private property makes the upper and middle classes tremble, the new Constitution's guarantees regarding property rights notwithstanding.

The internal tensions and contradictions within the MVR and the Patriotic Pole came to a head with the pronouncements of the three military commanders and the wave of subsequent defections from the Chávez camp. President Chávez has concentrated his efforts on political reform during his first year in office and is only now beginning to prioritize social and economic policy. After the mega-elections—assuming he remains in office—Chávez will need to turn his attention to the consolidation and transformation of the MVR, as he pledged he would in the wake of the declaration of the three comandantes. Internal democracy and ideological clarity are two imperatives that Chávez and his MVR can no longer postpone.

Steve Ellner, the co-editor of The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Westview, 1993), has written extensively on Venezuelan history and politics.

1. El Nacional (Caracas), November 23, 1999.
2. Steve Ellner, "Recent Venezuelan Political Studies: A Return to Third World Realities," Latin American Research Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1997), pp. 201-218.
3. Author's interview with former MAS leader Eduardo Pozo, Caracas, November 30, 1999. The Democratic Left consists of the historical leaders of MAS who split off from the party last year.
4. The ex-guerrillas who broke off from the Communist Party to form MAS in 1971 at first retained the notion of the primacy of the struggle for state power and embraced the slogan "socialism in our lifetime." See Ellner, Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Innovative Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1988), pp. 47-48.
5. Author's interview with Hernán Gruber Odremán, Governor of the Federal District, Caracas, November 29, 1999. Friction also manifested itself within the Chávez movement between retired officers and those who accused the military of flagrant violation of human rights. The concerns of the 26 Chavista officers in the Constituent Assembly were mainly limited to issues related to the armed forces, such as the special status conferred on the Indian communities in the frontier region.
6. El Nacional, March 11, 2000.
7. Venevisión TV News Program, March 14, 2000.
8. Agustín Blanco Muñoz, Habla el comandante (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1998), p. 322.
9. Author's interview with Alfredo Peña, Washington, D.C., February 2, 2000. In endorsing Peña as Caracas' mayor, the MVR turned down support for the PPT's Aristóbulo Istúriz, a former mayor of that city.

Tags: Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, populism, political divisions, inequality

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