News and opinions on the situation in Venezuela

US media image of “iron fist of Chavez” sits oddly with a country of outspoken people By John Hunt

British journalist John Hunt writes:  We have it on good authority from Fox TV … Venezuela is “moving towards totalitarian rule” with President Hugo Chavez using “brutal means to silence any dissent from the opposition or the public at large. ”

The threat to freedom is such, Chacao Mayor Leopold Lopez tells the channel, that “one day we will wake up and all of a sudden have no liberties.”

This US media image of the “iron fist of Chavez” sits very oddly with my recall of a country of outspoken people.

For example, in a Caracas bar, one man proclaims his readiness to fight to the death for the President while another derides Chavez as all talk — “habla, habla, habla” — and no delivery.

In San Carlos, a municipal press officer introduces us to an opponent of the government “to give you another point of view” … the local film maker mocks “la revolucion bonita” for not going far enough in its land and other reforms … the two men disagree, but it is clearly a dispute between friends.  

At Fabricio Ojedo, a model of the government’s drive for the ‘endogenous development’ of the economy, the elected coordinators of a new textile cooperative are having problems because all their decisions must be (but often are not) ratified by an assembly of the entire 280-strong workforce.

Professor Arenas, a popular state radio & TV presenter, is proud of the country’s electorally-endorsed constitution which he calls “our civilist Bible.” He also has reservations about Chavez’ close relationship with Fidel Castro … “they say he regards Fidel as his grandfather,” he muses. However, the professor dismisses the notion that Venezuela is becoming a one-party state like Cuba. “It is more likely that Cuba will be Venezuela-nized” he says, arguing that the thousands of Cuban medics and other experts working in Venezuela could be infected by his country’s mix of radical reform and constitutional liberty.

So much for incipient totalitarianism.

While the Bolivarian movement steering the country is unified under the leadership of Hugo Chavez and powered by the will of the majority to escape poverty, it is also an eclectic phenomenon embracing, for example, evangelism and communism.

At Mamon Mijor in the State of Aragua, Abilio Correa owns a small refuge for abandoned children and elderly people. In the dining room a stack of books about mediums is on show. Mr. Correa thinks he knows what makes Chavez tick: “Internally he is a spiritual person who is taking care of the poor. He speaks sincerely. It is obvious that he could not support an evil such as communism”. And yet Mr. Correa has allowed the first floor of his property to be turned into an impressive medical centre where locals can visit a doctor, a dentist or an optometrist — three women from Communist Cuba.

While the Cubans are helping transform the life-chances of many Venezuelans, the Bolivarian Revolution is also encouraging people to ‘do it for themselves’ and get actively involved. This drive towards a new type of participatory democracy should inspire those promoting active citizenship in Britain, where there is mass disenchantment with politics.

In Venezuela, by contrast, multitudes are joining cooperatives and community organizations and working to make a success of ‘los misiones’ — the education, health, land and other reform programs. For example, people are learning to read under Mision Robinson, and then volunteering to help coordinate this adult literacy scheme.

It is mainly, though not exclusively, a movement of the poor. They are the majority. They are being listened to, their basic needs needs are beginning to be met, and they are shaping the country’s future through elections and grassroots participation. What is this, if not democracy?

  • And what a contrast with the 1989 ‘Caracazo,’ when the government of the day met unrest in the barrios by shooting hundreds dead. Then the poor regarded the army with terror. Today the military are instructed to work with the people and you can see a young solider chatting to friends in downtown Caracas or a General on duty at a barrio children’s party.

The Venezuelan opposition draws most of its electoral support from middle class people who fear being left behind by the revolution. For example, some state sector workers worry that they will lose their jobs through political victimization. Many people say the country is as corrupt as ever. However, if an effort is made by the Bolivarians — and the booming economy should make this easier — more middle class Venezuelans can be won over.

They can be rescued from the grip of Venezuela’s traditional ruling class. This class has carelessly lost control of the state and is enraged that the government and armed forces are no longer at its disposal. It tolerates democracy only so long as it controls the wealth and can shoot the poor when necessary. It collaborates with a foreign power in defiance of the constitution and resorts to violence and sabotage to try and restore the old order.

‘Por ahora’ it has failed miserably, but eventually it will re-group and try again.

That is why Porter Goss, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), places Venezuela at the top of his Latin American list of “potential flashpoints in 2005.”

And there lies the longer-term threat of the Iron Fist…

John Hunt

John Hunt is freelance journalist currently visiting Venezuela to see with his own eyes the process of change underway in this country. You may email John Hunt at

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