Hugo Chavez: 'I am not a socialist!'
Yes, Hugo Chavez really said it: "I am not a socialist!" Not recently, to be sure, but 14 years ago when Chavez - as a cashiered Army paratrooper who'd led a failed military coup in February 1992 -- was making a run for Venezuela's presidency.
"I am not a socialist!" he said during a television interview, wearing a suit and speaking in reasonable tones. This was when he was trying hard to convince voters - especially middle-class and well-off Venezuelans who were leery of him -- that he'd definitely cast aside the bullet for the ballot. Chavez, at the time, claimed he was an idealistic moderate who would pursue a "Third Way" between capitalism and socialism. He pledged to reverse wide-spread poverty, clean up endemic corruption, and restore the oil-rich but impoverished South American nation's national pride - a nation that, during the era of high oil prices, was a beacon of democracy in the region and, many Venezuelans believed, was poised to attain first-world status. Back then, the country was dubbed "Saudi Venezuela."
"I am not a socialist!" Chavez's words now figure prominently into a powerful YouTube video - "Yo no soy socialista" - that juxtaposes Chavez's original campaign pledges against his leftist rhetoric that started soon after he took office in 1999. The video comes as Chavez, 58, is in a close election race against 40-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles.
You don't need to understand Spanish to understand the video in which El Presidente -- who now speaks of creating a paradise of "21st Century Socialism" -- extols the virtues of "fatherland, socialism, or death" ("patria, socialismo o muerte) to an audience. At another point, he declares: "I am a true revolutionary!"
In the mainstream media's Venezuela coverage, an important piece of context is often omitted regarding Chavez's rise to power - it's erroneously suggested that only Venezuela's poor voted for Chavez, who won the second-largest popular vote ever, 58.4%, in 1998. In fact, many middle-class and well-off Venezuelans voted for Chavez. They didn't see him as a messiah as did Venezuela's poor, to be sure. But they did regard him as a sincere reformer -- a political outsider not associated with Venezuela's traditional parties, a man who would be an antidote for Venezuela's decline.
But as the YouTube video dramatically shows, Chavez carried out a monstrous bait-and-switch after becoming president. Declaring himself a revolutionary socialist and adopting an anti-American foreign policy, despite Venezuela's historically close ties with the U.S., Chavez consolidated his power by rewriting the constitution and packing the Supreme Court and other institutions with his supporters. He demonized anybody who disagreed with him. It happened because of Venezuela's weak checks and balances and the popular wave of support on which Chavez was riding.
As a Caracas-based journalist at the time, I was impressed at the way some prescient Venezuelans, a minority to be sure, avoided group think. They saw Chavez as a wolf-in-sheep's clothing from the start. Even before Chavez's landslide election victory, for instance, many upper-level executives in state oil company PDVSA were resigning -- making plans for early retirement abroad, with Miami being a popular spot to weather the storm. Many were among Venezuela's best and brightest. They had wanted to be part of the solution to Venezuela's problems. But Chavez, a class warrior instead of a uniter, saw them as part of Venezuela's problems.
Ultimately, Chavez took three bad ideas from Venezuela's past - statism, authoritarianism, and bread-and-circus populism - and took them to new heights. He stoked anti-Americanism like never before, traveling frequently abroad as he made alliances with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Middle Eastern strongmen. He even praised Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal as a "worthy heir of the greatest [leftist] struggles."
As for PDVSA, it used to be one of the world's most respected state oil companies, a vital source of income. Under Chavez, it has become rife with political cronyism. Oil production has declined significantly, according to many observers. It's thought the Chavez administration's mismanagement was responsible for a huge refinery explosion last month - whose flames, as shown in the "I-am-not-a-socialist" video, look like scenes from hell. It's an apt metaphor for what "21st Century socialism" has brought to Venezuela.
In his reelection campaign, Chavez has had a clear advantage. He controls the levers of power and has no qualms about using state resources to aid his campaign, as was underscored on Tuesday with a report from television news channel Globovision: It showed PDVSA vehicles driving around with Chavez campaign stickers.
Capriles is good looking compared to the puffy-faced Chavez who claims to be in remission from cancer; and in Venezuela -- home to many beauty queens -- looks matter. Capriles has connected with audiences by hammering away at Venezuela's epic levels of corruption, mismanagement, and Chavez's willingness to use Venezuela's oil to support leftist political goals abroad -- all while Venezuela has suffered regular electricity outages, food shortages, and one of the world's highest murder rates.
What will happen when Venezuelans go to the polls this Sunday? It may be ugly. Chavez, after all, sees himself as being on a divine mission, a veritable reincarnation of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar, his hero. He believes the ends justify the means. Most ominously, Chavez and his senior advisers have asserted that Venezuela will suffer violence and political instability if he's not reelected. All of which raises fears that the country is poised for a social explosion, with Chavez's most fanatical supporters and government forces taking to the streets. This would be in response to a Capriles victory - or perhaps in response to a Chavez victory that's regarded by enraged Capriles' supporters as being rigged.
"A number of multinational companies with operations in Venezuela (including oil companies) are updating contingency plans to pull their expatriate staff out of the country quickly if there's a sudden eruption of social and political conflict," writes blogger Caracas Gringo, a prescient American expat who writes anonymously from Venezuela.
Whoever wins, Venezuela's sad decline will not be reversed anytime soon.