At Large

The New Quixote

Venezuela's would-be dictator adopts the mantle of the hallucinating knight errant.

By 5.10.05

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Chapter 1
In which Our Hero urges his fellow citizens to draw inspiration from the figure of Don Quixote

Raised in a family of teachers, Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias loved to read, especially biographies of his heroes Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin...

It's a familiar story. The hero is convinced he is a revolutionary, the likes of Bolivar and Che, and so sets off to save the world. Two unsuccessful coups later he founds a socialist party, and with the backing of his idol Castro, terrorism-sponsoring states like Iran and Libya, and a sharp economic downturn, he manages to stir up enough resentment against the rich to get himself elected.

And everywhere he turns he finds giants disguised as windmills...or oil wells.

"We're still oppressed by giants," Culture Minister Francisco Sesto tells the BBC, "so we want the Venezuelan people to get to know better Don Quixote, who we see as a symbol of the struggle for justice and the righting of wrongs."

Don Quixote is an early 17th century satire of a dying medieval society that was being quickly pushed aside by the Renaissance and the Reformation. It tells the tale of a deluded old man lost in a romantic fantasy. So perhaps it is a fitting metaphor for today's leftist leaders who remain frozen in the past -- 1917 -- to be exact, long before the socialist experiment had come a cropper.

On the 400th anniversary of its publication, Chavez's government is handing out a million free copies of Don Quixote, as a novel way of inspiring the masses. The poor will read the book -- well, a few chapters anyway -- and think, "See, he cares about us. He gives us a free book. The old regime would never do that." Not that Chavez is interested in increasing literacy rates or promoting the love of classical literature. Rather he is using Cervantes' masterpiece for propaganda purposes.

"Don't be left without your Quixote," says Chavez. "We are all going to read Quixote to feed our spirit with this fighter who came out to get rid of injustice and fix the world. To some degree, we are followers of Quixote." Few critics can resist commenting that in that case Venezuelans are followers of a foolishly idealistic and hallucinating knight errant.

Venezuela (which means "Little Venice") is a picture book country. Beautiful white beaches on the Caribbean, snow-capped mountains, Amazonian jungles in the south. Ideal weather. It has the kind of natural resources most countries envy, including one of the largest known oil deposits in the world, as well as huge quantities of coal, iron ore, and gold.

Yet most Venezuelans live in poverty, many of them squatting in shantytowns controlled by gangs of armed thugs -- supporters of the regime known as the Bolivarian Circles. In the seven years Chavez has been in power, little has changed, despite the highest oil revenues in a decade. The people are as poor as ever. Chavez blames this not on the impossibilities of socialism, but on menacing giants.

Chapter 2
In which our hero bravely wages class warfare

Venezuela nationalized its oil industry long before Chavez came to power, but the president has made a career out of demonizing oil executives whom he describes as living in "luxury chalets where they perform orgies, drinking whisky." (This from a twice-divorced would-be dictator who is chummy with Bolivian cocaine leader Evo Morales, and lives in a palace.)

Like all socialist leaders Chavez's one trump card is to play the rich against the poor. And since the '90s, there have been a lot more of the latter. Venezuela, the world's fourth largest oil exporter, once had a thriving bourgeoisie (about half Venezuelans were middle class). When oil prices slumped in the '80s and '90s, and the Latin American debt crisis worsened the economy went into freefall. The government of Carlos Andres Perez was forced to borrow heavily and undertake austerity measures. Chavez took advantage of the recession and subsequent public disenchantment. But rather than attempting to defeat the floundering government at the ballot box, Chavez and his supporters decided to stage a bloody coup. Twice. Both times they failed.

After his release from prison, Chavez formed the socialist party, Movement for a Fifth Republic. This time he took the presidency riding a wave of popular disillusionment and bolstered by windy promises to redistribute wealth. As president one of his first actions was to throw out the archaic notion of private property rights. In January, the Chavez government began breaking up the country's large estates. Plan Zamora, as it is called, taxes unused landholdings, expropriates unused private lands (with compensation), gives inheritable unsellable land grants to small farmers and collectives, and places a legal limit on the size of landholdings.

Venezuela remains the only country in the region that relies on food imports. Chavez says giving land to the peasants will make the country more self-sufficient. But few of the poor seem interested in returning to rural areas. Most have migrated to the shantytowns that surround the larger cities and have no intention of returning to the provinces, unless forced to. Following the Cuban Revolution, Venezuela passed similar reforms in 1960, but the land reform movement was a bust, the farms failed or the peasants lost interest, and the idea was soon given up. The government is now focusing on giving slumdwellers the rights to their slums.

Chapter 3
In which our hero survives a general strike/lockout, a coup d'etat, and a recall referendum

The first coup d'etat of the 21st century occurred in the (newly renamed) Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in April 2002. The spark that ignited the coup was the passage of legislation giving Chavez almost unlimited powers for one year. Days before the law expired Chavez announced 49 reforms, including the land reform bill. Outraged, trade unions and the national chamber of commerce declared a one-day general strike.

Three months later the Venezuelan president fired the management of the state-run oil monopoly, replacing the board with his supporters. On April 11, 150,000 people marched to the presidential palace in support of the strike and to protest the firings. Chavez vowed to crush the strike, and sent in the National Guard and Bolivarian Circle gunmen. In the ensuing melee, 17 people were killed and 110 injured.

As casualties mounted, the military high command rebelled, demanding Chavez's resignation. The following day the head of the Armed Forces announced that the president had resigned. Chavez was taken into military custody, and flown to a prison on the island of La Orchila. Pedro Carmona Estanga, a strike organizer, was named head of a transitional government. Latin American countries, however, refused to recognize the new government, and Chavistas mounted counter-demonstrations. Within 48 hours the coup was over, and Chavez was restored to power.

Later that year opponents launched a violent nine-week strike that wrecked the already fragile economy. But Chavez again ignored demands that he step down. Finally, last August, after a two-year struggle to get a recall measure on the ballot, Venezuelans went to the polls to decide whether the president should serve out the remaining two-and-a-half years of his term. Peasants were told that if Chavez did not win they would no longer receive their "help." Fifty-nine percent of voters returned Chavez to office, and Jimmy Carter certified the election as fair.

Chapter 4
In which our hero silences the dread opposition

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" is the president's nickname for Venezuela's four major TV networks. Last month, Chavez took steps to muzzle the networks' frequent criticism of his government by passing the "Social Responsibility in TV and Radio Act," a new law condemned by human rights groups for threatening freedom of expression. The law makes it a criminal offense to insult or show disrespect for the president and other government authorities. Media outlets will face heavy fines or closure if they step outside the law. Chavez has also created his own state television network broadcast throughout Latin America. Individual journalists, meanwhile, report that they are regularly harassed, arrested, tear-gassed, fire-bombed, and shot at by Chavez's thugs.

But perhaps the most effective way to muzzle criticism of the government is to simply stack the courts with your supporters. In August 2002, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that there was not enough evidence to proceed with the trials of the coup leaders. In response, Chavez enlarged the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 members. Now with the courts in his hip pocket, Chavez is free to go after anyone who dares oppose him. Last month it was Carlos Ayala Corao, a distinguished jurist and human rights activist. Criminal proceedings were begun against Ayala after he expressed concern at the situation of risk and stigmatization affecting human rights defenders. "This is a clear-cut case of political persecution, targeting someone who has been an effective critic of the Chavez government's human rights record," said Human Rights Watch's Americas Director Jose Vivanco. Ayala is accused of participating in the 2002 coup against Chavez, when in fact Ayala had been defending a pro-Chavez congressman during the coup. "This case signals that the Venezuelan authorities have now decided to resort to criminal prosecutions as a tool to harass government critics, Vivanco said.

Venezuela's attorney general is now considering charges against more than 200 people for politically motivated offenses, a number that is expected to rise considerably.

Chapter 5
In which our hero dreams of a "Greater Colombia"

If there were a Populist Politicians' Handbook it would need but two chapters. Chapter one would be titled "Class Warfare." Chapter two: "Anti-Americanism." Chavez has learned both chapters by heart.

In 2000, Chavez became the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf war, in spite of U.S. opposition. A short time later he made a high-profile visit to Cuba.

Following 9/11, Chavez accused the U.S. of "fighting terror with terror" in Afghanistan. That same year he accused the U.S. of being behind the failed coup to oust him, and of backing the traitors in an attempt to take over the nation's petroleum industry. In response to the ouster of Haiti's Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004, Chavez called George W. Bush a "prick." He has accused the U.S. of attempting to assassinate him so many times that the international press no longer pays attention to his crying wolf.

Chavez likes to boast that "We have invaded the United States, but with our oil." Other times he has threatened to cut off oil exports to the U.S. in favor of Chinese, Iranian, and Russian markets.

How real is this threat, not just to the U.S., but to the rest of Latin America? The former army colonel recently announced his intent to export his "Bolivarian revolution" to the world. He has repeatedly expressed his intent to revive Simon Bolivar's "Greater Colombia," which in the early 19th century united Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela, and has made large territorial claims on Guyana. The Economist reports that Chavez recently declared himself to be a "Fidelista, a follower, that is, of Cuba's president Fidel Castro, his closest ally."

Chavez also plans to double the size of the army reserve as "an honorable answer to President Bush's intention of being the master of the world." From Russia, Venezuela is buying 50 advanced MiG-29 fighters, 40 helicopter gunships and 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles, in addition to recent arms purchases from Spain and Brazil.

Epilogue
In 1958, a bloodless coup removed Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator, from power, thus beginning the nation's four decades as a political democracy. Chavistas insist their leader is a democrat, not a dictator, proudly noting that the president has won three elections in the past five years. Yet Chavez only ran for election after twice failing to overthrow the government in bloody coups in which some 120 people were killed.

Armed militias, secret police, a stacked judiciary, control of the nation's wealth, curbs on free speech, torture of opposition, harassment of journalists...this is what passes for democracy in Venezuela today.

Like the Man of La Mancha, President Hugo Chavez is waging the last great battle between socialism and capitalism. History is not on Hugo's side.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.