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What’s happened to Venezuela’s dream of progress?

Monica Henriquez meets some Venezuelan dissidents

April 22, 2003
5 min read

I met professor Blanco Muñoz by the clock tower of Caracas’s University City. Built almost 60 years ago, University City constitutes some of Latin America’s most impressive modernist architecture, and evokes a post-WWII promise of democracy and progress. It made me think of how the twists and turns of modern Venezuelan history have eddied through its corridors and gardens.

Muñoz’s office is near the room he had four decades ago in the old student halls of residence known as ‘Stalingrad’. The halls were famous as the headquarters of urban guerrilla cells operating from the university. In 1966 an arsenal was uncovered, the halls of residence shut and Muñoz jailed. Now he is a historian. His book The Commandante Speaks is indispensable to understanding the president and his revolution. Today Muñoz finds himself at odds with both the groups opposing the government and the Chavez regime itself.

Venezuelan democracy was reborn in 1958, when power was wrested from the military. But in 1989 came the Caracazo, when the shantytowns surrounding Caracas exploded. “This,” Muñoz explains, “was the clearest proof of an institutional, political, leadership, ideological and even human vacuum – a vacuum that after 14 years, no one, including Chavez, has been able to fill.”

Muñoz berates the Venezuelan Left for substituting a leadership cult for ideology. “Can you imagine,” he asks, “a country in which the last word on politics, ethics or education is in the hands of one man? ‘President Chavez will solve issues of land, air and sea. A university problem? Let’s find out what Chavez has to say!’ What do you call that? Backwardness!”

Muñoz sees plotting coups as an essential part of Venezuelan political culture. Chavez attempted his own coup in 1992, but in 1998 he came to power through elections. “To distance themselves from other coup plotters,” Muñoz says, “[Chavez and his supporters] call themselves revolutionaries. And here you need to ask yourself what revolution? A working-class one? What working class under a government with the highest unemployment ever? What revolution?”

Teacher Herma Marksman was Chavez’s partner and lover for nine years. It was the early 1980s when they met; she was in her 30s, and he was a talkative army officer in his 20s. Marksman studied history in the 1960s. Her mother was a peasant and her German immigrant father a union organiser for ironworkers. She is a classic example of those in the lower middle classes who believed in Chavez.

“We were preparing for the time when we would be in government,” Marksman recalls. “We wanted to establish a state in which the law was respected, to abolish corruption, to develop our basic industries and to do a real restructuring of the education system. None of that has happened. If anything, there has been a turning for the worse. Today there is more injustice, and no sign of that group of democrats who voiced, and accepted, different opinions. We live under an autocrat who does not respect the separation of powers. There is a chief justice who does not act, a financial comptroller who does not control, an ombudsman who only defends government interests. So where is the Bolivarian project?”

Marksman last spoke to Chavez on 28 July 1993. She now supports the opposition. Responding to the accusation that it comprises coup plotters, fascists and oligarchs, she asks whether it is possible that million-strong demonstrations can consist entirely of such people.

Another former Chavez ally is Pablo Medina, a leading member of the radical Causa R party. Medina provided cars, housing and logistics for the then aspirant leader. But the pair had a legendary bust-up in 1999. Now Medina says: “The civilian-military movement turned into a military-civilian government, and that changed order definitely altered the product.” For Medina, Chavez has become “authoritarian, corrupt and neo-liberal”.

Medina reserves his strongest criticism for Chavez’s anti-globalisation ‘posturing’. “This government has presided over a period of the largest net export of capital in our history,” he says. “It has been incapable of renegotiating the foreign debt, and it has left the door open for further privatisations.” Chavez’s anti-imperialist, anti-globalisation rhetoric is, Medina adds, just “Chavez-speak”.

Back at the university, Muñoz stares out across the campus. “I am not asking Chavez to be the most radical of radicals. What I ask of him is honesty about what he is doing. I did not ask for a revolution, just to aim for things that are possible.” He cites the zero-hunger programme of Brazilian president ‘Lula’ da Silva. “So, OK, he is not going to go against the liberal state, against globalisation, against capitalism. No, his [target] is zero hunger. Let us say he only manages to lower the rate of hunger from 100 to 30 per cent. Good. That”s what we wanted in Venezuela, and there was a real consensus here to do just that. But what does Chavismo say? “No, we are going to make a revolution!” And in those big words and that confusion everything got lost.”

Monica Henriquez is a Venezuelan film maker/editor based in London and Caracas

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