Chavez: Ever a Bush Critic, Ever Popular

Times Staff Writer

As he does every Sunday afternoon for hours on end, President Hugo Chavez was holding forth to a captive television camera, by turns singing, taking calls, chumming it up with deferential guests and launching broadsides at domestic and foreign foes.

This time, the foe was otherworldly: Halloween ghosts and goblins.

Not surprisingly, he was referring to American ghosts and goblins, their seemingly harmless costumes merely a disguise for what the burly, loquacious Venezuelan president labeled cultural “terrorism.”

“Dressing up the family like witches, it runs contrary to our customs,” said Chavez, his brow furrowed, as he broadcast his show, “Alo Presidente,” -- Hello, President -- from the eastern Venezuelan oil town of Maturin last week. He urged Venezuelans to ignore the “gringo custom.”


“It’s all a game of terror, very appropriate to gringo culture, to make other countries afraid, make its own people afraid,” said Chavez, a former army officer who was elected democratically in 1998 after leading an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. A dozen solemnly attentive Cabinet ministers and local officials nodded approval.

Exporting a trick-or-treat culture was just one of the many crimes the leftist leader pins on Uncle Sam, his boogeyman Numero Uno. It’s all part of Chavez’s ongoing effort, central to a socialist agenda called the “Bolivarian Revolution,” to demonize U.S. society, culture and politics, and rally his citizens and those of other Latin American nations to the example of Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom Chavez idolizes.

He seems to abhor President Bush, whom he sometimes refers to as “Mr. Danger” after an evil character in a classic Venezuelan novel. On many an occasion, he seems to enjoy deriding Bush, especially since Chavez faced an abortive military coup in April 2002 in which he accuses the U.S. of having a hand.

Seven years after his ascent to power, polls indicate that Chavez enjoys the support of a majority of Venezuelans, and he’s an odds-on favorite to win reelection again next year. But that doesn’t mean his strident criticism of the United States and his fervent lionization of Cuba are going over big here.

According to Datanalysis, a polling firm in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Chavez enjoys a 51% approval rating, which is better than it sounds, said the firm’s Luis Vicente Leon, because the opposition is “totally atomized.” At the same time, 76% of Venezuelans polled rejected Chavez’s idea of using Cuba as an economic model, up from a 53% rejection rate in May.

“A majority thinks that talking about Cuba means losing your freedom and nationality,” Leon said. “I am talking not only about the opposition, but the Chavistas, or Chavez supporters, of whom only 13% accept Cuba as a model.”

The majority of Venezuelans are center-right politically, Leon said, and “if you separate the States from Bush, 36% said in a December poll they prefer the United States as a model.”

What does matter for the time being is not so much Chavez’s rhetoric but that Venezuela is awash in oil money, which he is spending lavishly on a host of anti-poverty measures, including free medical service, deeply discounted basic foodstuffs and education outreach.

As long as oil prices stay high -- and experts expect them to for the next 12 to 18 months, at least -- and the money flows, Chavez will face few obstacles.

Although the volume of Venezuelan oil output has stalled since 2003, the price per barrel is now more than four times what it was the year Chavez took office. The bottom line: Venezuela will reap about $49 billion in oil revenue this year, more than twice the $22 billion it earned in 2002.

The boom in oil prices helped fuel a 43% increase in Venezuela’s public spending this year, to $37 billion. Economist Francisco Vivancos of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas expects another large increase during the next fiscal year.

Although some of the cash is going to public works such as a commuter train and the fourth phase of Caracas’ subway system, the vast majority is funneled into programs benefiting Venezuela’s poor, who make up 80% of the population. Chavez has created a nationwide chain of retail stores catering to poor Venezuelans. The 14,000 Mercal stores offer discounts averaging 35% less than supermarket prices.

These measures are appreciated by people such as Leida Gette, a poor seamstress and single mother of four. She lives in the La Vega slum in the southwest area of Caracas named after a nearby cement plant that shut down years ago.

“He has done many things for us -- not just the stores,” Gette said as she emerged from shopping at a Mercal below the hillside shack where she lives. Raw sewage flowed through the street in front of the store, and beggars rummaged through a nearby garbage dumpster looking for food.

“He built a school up at the top of the hill and laid the pipeline that brings us water. We used to have to walk down here to get it and carry it back,” Gette said. “He has a good heart.”

He has also built thousands of medical clinics, staffed by Cuban doctors, where many slum dwellers are now making their first contact with a physician. Among the dozens of patients crowding the clinic in the Catia slum in northwest Caracas last week was Yaneeth Nava, 32, who suffers from chronic headaches.

“Before, the hospital visits were very difficult to get and costly. But this is free,” Nava said.

Even Chavez’s critics applaud his advocacy of social programs for the poor, a theme he propounded at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina this weekend, saying that free trade had failed to solve the hemisphere’s grinding poverty.

“What I like about him is he has put social preoccupations back in the center of national discussion, after they have been absent for the last 20 years,” said Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla, leftist ex-Cabinet minister -- and now, as editor of Caracas’ Tal Cual newspaper, a frequent critic of Chavez’s autocratic tendencies.

For the first time, the poor here feel they have a stake in the nation’s vast oil wealth. “For 20 years I asked where all the oil money went, and nobody ever had an answer,” taxi driver Oscar Arias said.

But economists say the spending binge, and a large portion of Chavez’s support, will evaporate if oil prices drop. Meanwhile, private investment is falling, as is industrial output, ominous signals for a consumer-driven economy that may grow 9% this year.

“It’s a sign that there is no long-term confidence in the political economic strategy of the government,” said Eduardo Gomez Sigala, head of Venezuela’s largest industrial trade association, Coindustria, which is deeply critical of Chavez’s government. Other critics worry that Chavez has steadily concentrated political power in his hands, weakening democracy, in his efforts to emulate Castro.

“There is a growing tendency by Chavez to take control of the economic, political and social life of the country,” Petkoff said, adding that Chavez is the “classic South American caudillo” -- military strongman -- “a species well known to Venezuelans.”

Even among the poor, there is widespread dislike of the idea that Chavez is gathering the reins of power to himself.

“If he wants to give me something, I’ll take it -- why not?” student Yulimy Manzo, 23, said as she stocked up on discounted cooking oil and rice at a Mercal in the crime-ridden Gramoven barrio of eastern Caracas. “But I don’t like Chavez. He is a machista, and he wants to rule forever.”

But the president shows no signs of toning down his rhetoric or refraining from framing nearly every act of his government as a reaction to Yankee hegemony.

At a meeting last week to announce the planned 2008 launch of Venezuela’s first communications satellite, he said the orbiter, dubbed Simon Bolivar I, would rescue his country from a “perverse mechanism of domination” by foreign TV programming, such as CNN.

“The Bolivarian Revolution,” he said, his voice rising, “will fight battles to break, fracture and smash these mechanisms of domination, that are like chains that keep our arms, legs and throats bound.”