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The Gambler

1.

Caracas, cradled though it is in a lush green valley and separated from the Caribbean only by the lovely Monte Avila, is not a beautiful city. The business districts are a monument to mercenary urban development, and in general the capital of Venezuela is so lacking in planning that it can seem as if the very streets were about to collide with each other. The place is jarringly noisy and blatantly divided. The wealthier classes live on the Avila’s slopes, along streets shaded by lush trees, while the poor occupy the steep scarred hills that cup the rest of the Caracas valley, hills that seem to have been stripped clean of the smallest shrub, and are covered instead from base to peak with the tightly packed, bare, graceless dwellings of the poor. The hillsides tend to slump downward or sideways during the rainy season, bringing calamities with them, yet new arrivals set up camp here every day. From their pleasant apartment complexes or their office buildings on the valley floor, delightfully hospitable caraqueños will look fearfully toward the peopled landscape and plead with a visitor not to venture there: thieves, murderers, drug addicts, chavistas swarm in those heights, they warn, shuddering behind their grilled windows.

Up close, the barrios—in Venezuela this is the term for poor neighborhoods—look very different, a labyrinth of alleys and footpaths and stairways clambering up, to, and around bare brick houses that have been squeezed everywhere into alarmingly tight corners, crowded with activity. Children in neatly pressed uniforms climb back home from school, unemployed young men gather in the clearings to smoke and chat, and industrious women hurry past them, burdened with laundry or groceries. There are repair shops and bakeries and churches barely large enough for an altar and a few rows of pews, and, on the main thoroughfares, noisy buses that squeal and burp at every halt. Near the hillcrests, only ancient jeeps fitted with wooden benches in the back manage to carry passengers up and around the roads’ hairpin turns.

The largest number of barrios is to be found at the eastern end of the city, in the area of Petare, home to some 600,000 of the city’s four million inhabitants. This sprawling community is indeed poor, although in Venezuela, a country with a per capita income of $4,400, it is by no means the poorest. But my friends were right to say that crime and drugs are critical problems here. And Petare has chavistas, too—followers of President Hugo Chávez—possibly more chavistas per square foot, and more cohesively organized, than anywhere else in the country. It is in Petare that Hugo Chávez’s ambitious social welfare programs are implemented most ambitiously, because he has turned the poor into his de facto party, and as a result, whether his presidency stands or falls can be determined by the residents of this barrio, which vies for a place with three cities for the rank of Venezuela’s fourth-largest urban agglomeration.

One morning late in July, I went to Petare and toured the local branches of the various social welfare organizations created by Chávez in the course of his nearly seven years in power. My guide was María Milagros Reyes, a tough, enthusiastic woman from the top of one of the barrio’s highest hills. Reyes is the director for ideology in Petare of the Comando Maisanta, an organization that was first created last year to get out the vote for a referendum on whether Hugo Chávez should remain in power.

Reyes has a position of some rank, and I worried that in her presence people might not want to express the doubts and reservations about Chávez I had heard among the citizenry, and even the chavista leadership, in other barrios, but in Petare that morning no one I met seemed to have any doubts—neither a young man in a storefront equipped by the government with five computer terminals, who was receiving free instruction on how to use the Internet and how to fill out on-line employment applications, nor the working women in a small office in that same compound, looking to place their children in one of the chavista child-care cooperatives run by housewives in every neighborhood.

And there was no mistaking the vigorous enthusiasm of a group of twenty or so elderly people in white T-shirts who could not be stopped from interrupting their morning calisthenics in a parking lot to explain how, later in the week, they would board a nearby bus for their weekly excursion—to-day to a park, some other time to the beach. “They even take our blood pressure now before we start to exercise!” one woman explained to enthusiastic nods.

Chávez’s fractured opposition unanimously condemns the various barrio programs as populist asistencialismo—welfarism—and on one level they can be seen as something even worse than that: a greedy attempt by Chávez to replace the health, housing, and education ministries that are the legacy of the previous regime with his own programs, to his exclusive political benefit. But in Petare the several misiones—the name for the most lavishly financed national programs—can make such lofty criticisms seem heartless, or beside the point.

I went to one of the Petare outlets of the Misión Mercal, a network of stores that has put basic foodstuffs at subsidized prices within walking distance of most poor Venezuelans. At the cash register of a refurbished warehouse, a woman bought rice, dried beans, and a handsome, fat chicken at cost. There was meat, too. Chávez is trying to undercut the traditionally conservative cattle ranchers by importing Uruguayan and Argentine meat for the Mercales, and since the Misión Mercal does not have to pay duties on the beef, and gets to charge the cost of distribution to the government, this is easy. Still, the meat looked excellent, and a man in the checkout line proudly stressed that it was imported—no gristly second-rate meat for the poor under Chávez.

Johnel Guzmán, a thoughtful man in his twenties who was the store’s assistant manager, cleared his throat in embarrassment before allowing that he had never held a job before. Now he and two of the cashiers were taking courses toward a college-equivalency certificate, and receiving monthly stipends from the Misión Sucre, an education program. The quality of the education provided may be terrible, as its critics claim, and the need for adequate elementary schooling may be far more urgent, but at the Mercal the young people’s energy and impatience were almost palpable: for years their lives had been at a standstill, and now, thanks to Chávez, they were on the move.

My guide, Reyes, had agreed to wait outside or linger in the distance while I talked to people at our various stops. At the last one, however, she introduced me to her friend Alexandra Castillo, a quiet, very bright twenty-one-year-old who was the coordinator of one of the Petare UBEs, or Electoral Battle Units, and stayed for a conversation about political organizing, an activity both women clearly loved. The goal set by the Comandos Maisanta, they said, was to get ten million votes for Chávez in the 2006 election, or 69 percent of the vote, and in Petare the overlapping leadership of the Comandos and the local programs were working hard to deliver their quota.

We sat in a shack behind a roadside empanada stand owned by Alexandra’s mother. It was a dim, bare place, but it was refreshingly out of the glare of the sun, and equipped with a blackboard and a couple of handwritten charts of the local organizations and their tasks; a headquarters of sorts. Every once in a while a woman would pop her head in the doorway to say hello, and eventually three of them lingered to chat with us. Castillo was studying under the Misión Sucre; another woman, Elisa Mari, was building a home with materials provided by the chavista municipality. A third—a lively woman called “Blondie” because of her light-brown hair—was a diabetic, and thanks to the Misión Barrio Adentro, which has placed doctors in small residence-and-clinic modules in just about every poor neighborhood in most Venezuelan cities, she no longer had to travel to the local hospital and wait in line for her insulin and needles.

Barrio Adentro is the most controversial misión, because it is staffed and organized almost entirely by Cuban medical personnel, but together with a related specialized surgery program, it may also be the one that helps the Comandos turn out the most votes. Mari had already traveled to Cuba for a free hip-replacement operation, and would soon be returning for eye surgery. What did these women like most about Chávez, I wondered; the health care, the housing program? “Ay, todo!” Blondie exclaimed, hugging herself. “Everything: his eyes, his mouth, the way he talks…. I’m just in love with him! He’s a gorgeous, beautiful negrito.”

A great many of Chávez’s opponents laugh at the fervor expressed by women like Blondie, their blind adoration of a man who loves to serenade the audience at every public opportunity, get himself up in military uniform, and flash a Cartier watch on his wrist, a different one for every occasion. The opposition lives in a permanent state of rage too at the regime’s corruption, its autocratic use of public funds, and Chávez’s determined assault on the institutions that make representative democracy possible (he prefers his own brand of democracia participativa, which has little room for opposition parties or civic rights). But people like Reyes and Alexandra Castillo are quick to sense the disrespect toward them in the former ruling elite’s seething anger, the racism that leads them to call the dark-skinned Chávez the mico mandante—the order-giving monkey, in place of mi comandante—or speak with loathing of the zambo, or half-breed, who has empowered other zambos like him to feel at home in their restaurants and beachside resorts. Their restaurants!

Chavistas in the barrios answered the criticisms I proposed with a question: “Y ellos, ¿Qué hicieron?” (“And they, what did they do?”) What did the people in the tall apartment buildings ever do for us? Why, in fact, did the elite now in exile from the halls of power rule in the waning decades of the last century with such careless disregard for the 45 percent or so of the population who earn barely enough to keep themselves fed and clothed, and for the approximately 20 percent—the statistic waxes and wanes according to the price of oil—who cannot lay their hands on enough money to consume the equivalent of 2,200 calories a day?

2.

To its great good fortune, the members of the current opposition to Hugo Chávez do not have to answer these questions, because its leadership emerged only during the last five years, and comes largely from the ranks of businessmen and former businessmen who had virtually no earlier political involvement. But to the degree that they are nearly all members of the upper classes, they are deeply distrusted by the chavistas, who are overwhelmingly poor. Non-chavista politicians either lost the respect of the electorate during the meltdown of the old party system, in the years preceding the arrival of Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution, or are too young and inept to enjoy credibility. And many sullied forever their democratic credentials by showing unrestrained glee at the climax of a military coup that removed Chávez from power for forty-eight hours in April 2002. They hardly register as an alternative: it is widely agreed that the 59 percent of the vote which represents Chávez’s largest victory at the polls so far means 41 percent of the electorate voted against him, but not really for anyone else. Having started out as a force capable of mobilizing half a million people or more on the eve of the coup in Caracas, and of gathering at least three million signatures the following year for a petition to hold a referendum on Chávez’s continued rule, his opposition is currently at a loss.

More visible than the parties, and more frequently the object of official and para-official attack, are the human rights activists and electoral-monitoring organizations that make up what there is in Venezuela of a sociedad civil. After I said good-bye to María Milagros Reyes and her friends, I took the startlingly clean and modern subway four stops from the Petare station to Parque del Este, at the entrance to a breathtakingly lush tropical park, and walked a couple of blocks from there to an office building that rises from one of the larger shopping malls in the city. The most visible institution of the current opposition movement, Súmate, has its offices there, and though the address is elegant, the offices themselves are threadbare.

Súmate is a vote-monitoring organization, born in 2002 out of the need to mobilize disheartened anti-chavistas into participating in elections once again. Its role was to monitor the process of gathering signatures to demand a referendum on whether Chávez should continue in power. The opposition fought hard for this referendum: in 2003 its leaders presented more than 3,700,000 signatures for it to the National Electoral Council. The electoral council was disbanded and its ruling on the signatures was dismissed, so the opposition started all over again, defying hurdles set up by a new council almost at whim—that all the petitions be submitted in handwriting, for example, and in the same style of penmanship—and collecting, at last, 2.5 million valid signatures in 2004.1 And then they got trounced: the referendum was scheduled for August, and Chávez won with his largest vote so far, 59.1 percent of the total, in an election monitored, and held to have been fair, by the OAS and the Carter Center. (It helped Chávez’s cause that the price of oil had climbed from $25 a barrel at the start of the referendum campaign to $33 by July, and that the economy, after two years of extreme negative growth, was racing forward at 14 percent.)

Súmate, which monitored the vote and led the signature-gathering campaign, was started by María Corina Machado, a slender, attractive, and very pale-skinned member of one of Venezuela’s older, and wealthier, families, and by Alejandro Plaz, who is tall and sleek and descended from an old French immigrant family. There seemed no point in asking Plaz when I met with him if he thought his and Machado’s aristocratic bearing might be a political handicap, since there was nothing they could do about it. And, in any event, Plaz explained firmly, and disingenuously, they are not the leaders of a political organization. “We are neither for nor against this government,” he said. “Súmate is for those citizens who want to vote freely.”

Together with the largest of the post-Chávez political parties, Primero Justicia, Súmate suffered the brunt of the referendum’s defeat and is still recovering, so much so that Plaz told me it would not be monitoring the nationwide municipal elections which were to take place in August. His concern at that moment was a highly com-puterized electoral voting system being put in place by the National Electoral Council that, he explained, could be easily turned into an electoral fraud system, if ever Chávez should find himself facing defeat in a future election. He is probably right, although the point is hardly at the center of national events, and one could think that these days Súmate represents so insignificant a danger to Chávez that he would be content to let it die of attrition, but that is not his style.

Like Fidel Castro, he depends on generating a confrontational environment in which he can claim, as he so often does, that his Bolivarian Revolution is under threat, and must resort to extreme measures to survive. In October of last year, the attorney general called the four directors of Súmate in for questioning, at the formal start of an investigation to see if they could be accused of conspiracy to “destroy the Republican form of government.” The grounds for the case were $31,000 donated to Súmate by the National Endowment for Democracy. “As if that were an amount of money for which we would sell ourselves,” Plaz said with a dry laugh.

Last spring, María Corina Machado was invited to the White House. A photograph appeared in the press of her posing smilingly next to George W. Bush, and caused an uproar in Caracas, not only among chavistas. But when I asked Plaz, who used to be the head for the Andean region and the Caribbean of McKinsey, the management consultant firm, about the visit, he was oddly oblivious to its political impact back home: among the extremely few things most members of the Latin American upper and lower classes have in common these days is a shared loathing and fear of Bush.

Plaz and Machado and the two other directors of Súmate were formally charged with conspiracy in August, and must appear constantly in court, but when I talked to him Plaz was sanguine regarding the possibility that he could spend the next eight to sixteen years in jail. “We have very good lawyers,” he shrugged. And the government may have no strong desire to lose a great deal of international standing by jailing the founders of Súmate; the likelihood is that they will be greatly inconvenienced, pay substantial legal fees, and go free. But it is a safe bet that Chávez would do everything in his power to intimidate and destroy any public figure who came to pose a real threat to his rule: the Asamblea Nacional—the legislative body under chavista control—has already made it next to impossible for a new opposition party to survive financially. Where, then, will a real political challenge to Chávez spring from?

I had several cups of coffee one morning with Teodoro Petkoff, who has one of the odder curricula vitae in Venezuela. In the Sixties, he founded a guerrilla group. In the Seventies, he founded a left-wing party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, still in existence, and made his first run for the presidency. In the Nineties he served as planning minister to Rafael Caldera, the founder of the Christian-democrat party, COPEI (Caldera had left the party by that time). In 1998 he took over as managing editor of the newspaper El Mundo, and hired a handful of bright young journalists to modernize its content and outlook. One year later he was, essentially, hounded out of his job by the Chávez government. He did some emergency fund-raising and resurfaced the following year with a tabloid, Tal Cual, which currently has a circulation of under 25,000 and a very small staff. There’s not a huge amount of reporting on the inside pages, and very few ads, but people buy it primarily for Petkoff’s cheeky, lucid, front-page editorials (the front-page headline of the very first issue consisted of two words: “Hola, Hugo”).

Because he is nothing if not independent-minded, and, at the age of seventy-three, still almost garishly blue-eyed, quick-witted, and remarkably hale, Petkoff is interviewed a lot, and appears often on television. He is bemused to find himself emerging as the centrist of the hour for the sector of the opposition that neither supported the coup against Chávez three years ago nor identifies with the current leadership. One of his conservative political foes from the old days even showed up at a launch for his most recent book of essays.2 “He came up to me and said, ‘We must be really fucked if someone like me is here with someone like you,’” Petkoff recalled wryly. People ask him all the time what he plans to do with his newfound status, because the obvious option would be to run against Chávez, who is up for reelection next year.3 I asked him if he would, and Petkoff paused while he pondered the cost. He would not, of course, win. And hale or not, he is not young. He would face a merciless smear campaign. But he is a politician, after all, and the whole thing could be fun. Should he run again?

For the moment, he is on the sidelines. “Chávez has two pedals,” he said: “One is formal democracy and the other is authoritarianism, and he steps on one or the other as circumstances dictate. At every election, the results are close to being evenly divided [for and against him], and he knows how to read and weigh those results correctly. Aside from everything else, the sector that is against him is the most dynamic [of the economy]. And if he were to crush this sector he would have to do it a sangre y fuego—with blood and fire. But if Chávez sees that the 40 percent that is against him is growing weaker, he will step again on the authoritarian pedal.”

In recent months there have been a number of revisions to the legal code that limit the way the press covers the government, along with drastic incentives to comply with this code, in the form of long prison sentences for its violators.4

The overwhelming likelihood is that Chávez will be around for a long time, and it seems important to Petkoff to keep the anti-Chávez 40 percent politically engaged and stable. The question is whether, as a candidate, he would galvanize the opposition or lead it to its burial, and whether anyone else can fill the void.

3.

Strongmen or caudillos like Chávez, and dictators, too, have always depended on fervent popular support to consolidate their hold on power. How else could they push through the measures that deny their opponents access to a fair hearing or fair trial, or fair elections, and cripple the press? They profit as well from the weird joy many people take in watching a strongman exert his power. In Caracas these days it is dispiriting to hear intellectuals who back Chávez defend him with arguments that have been used too frequently before: el hombre might act like a clown but he is auténtico; he wears designer suits because poor people enjoy seeing him dress up; Chávez is right to repress his opponents because they are reactionary, or corrupt, or dislikable or inept or insignificant; the worst excesses are committed without the President’s knowledge and, in any event, his predecessors were just as bad, and at least Chávez is doing something for the poor. And, of course, there is always the question of el imperialismo, a threat universally perceived and all too real: nothing played so magically into a grateful Chávez’s hands as Pat Robertson’s recent call for the United States to assassinate the elected president of Venezuela, along with the State Department’s mealymouthed response.

There is a stage at which even a caudillo’s opponents, overwhelmed by a barrage of misinformation and lies, and his downright omnipresence, start believing the worst of their own fellows, as if el hombre had somehow managed to infiltrate their very heads. On my last night in Caracas I had dinner with a few friends, and we laughed about the President’s machoisms and groaned over the virulent opposition’s more wretched excesses. The conversation turned to Carlos Ayala Corao, a human rights lawyer who was part of the commission that drafted the ambitious articles on human rights in Chávez’s constitution, and who is currently being questioned by government officials to see if he will be formally charged with conspiring in the 2002 coup.

Ayala Corao is the former head of the Andean Commission of Jurists, and a past president of the Interamerican Court on Human Rights. Early in the morning of April 12, 2002, with the country in turmoil and no reliable information available anywhere about what was taking place in Miraflores Palace regarding the coup that had started the day before, Ayala Corao took advantage of his connections from the days of the Constitutional Convention and dropped by Miraflores to see what he could find out. He was approached by a colleague who asked him to look over a statement drafted by the anti-chavistas in control of Miraflores at that moment. When I talked to Ayala, he told me that he had been horrified by the statement. “This is a golpista document!” Ayala Corao told his acquaintance. “You are carrying out a golpe here, and I will state as much when I get home.”

In effect, when he left Miraflores he called Juan Méndez, president at the time of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to inform him that a coup was underway in Venezuela. Then he went to negotiate the release from jail of a chavista member of the National Assembly, who had been dragged out of his home and jailed by right-wing golpista fanatics. At midnight on April 13, members of the armed forces high command loyal to Chávez flew him back to Miraflores. But Ayala Corao, a patrician figure with little inclination to bow before the powerful, must have offended some very powerful members of Chávez’s inner circle in the past: two weeks after the President’s return to Miraflores, Ayala Corao was indicted as a coconspirator in the failed coup against Chávez. Formal charges, following a lengthy and absurd investigation, are expected this month.

I told my dinner guests that I had met Ayala Corao and that the whole affair struck me as outrageous. “But he did conspire in the coup!” one friend said. The others agreed; he was even identified as a conspirator in a book, they thought, the one written by Pedro Carmona, a befuddled reactionary who swore himself in as president and occupied Miraflores Palace for all of forty-eight hours. (He is known now as “Pedro the Brief.”) Carmona’s book exists, but Ayala Corao is not mentioned in it. My friends remained dubious. “He must have done something,” one of them insisted. But he could not say what.

In the half-century since they emerged as citizens, following an era of uninterrupted military dictatorships, Venezuelans have been tolerant, or at the very least easygoing, in their approach to politics and the huge gap in wealth and social possibilities that divide them from each other. The gap is real enough and unconscionable, given the amount of oil money that has coursed through Venezuela in this same period of time, but Chávez has made a political career out of exacerbating the rage it provokes. He has also, through the misiones programs, brought a sense of joyful hope to a great many of Venezuela’s poor—people who failed to see a future for themselves before his advent.

He is a high-risk gambler: if in the next few years the misiones fail to narrow the yawning distance between those who live in the shadow of the Avila and those who perch in the hills all around, the fury he has encouraged will be turned on him. Among his opponents there is the occasional fanatic who calls for his overthrow by the United States, or even, in a Pat Robertson mode, his assassination. But the besieged moderate sector, in the unhappy realization that the forcible removal of Chávez would only guarantee his spiritual domination of Venezuelan politics for decades to come, pray that Chávez will be allowed to fail, so that he can be voted peacefully out of office. One assumes that, along with this corkscrew kind of hope, they are praying for an inspired, inspiring leader of their own.

—This is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    This list was subsequently put on the Internet by a chavista member of the legislature, and used to screen the signatories for government jobs, contracts, and social welfare programs. See my article “Don’t Cry for Me, Venezuela,” The New York Review, October 6, 2005.

  2. 2

    Dos Izquierdas (Caracas: Alfadil, 2005).

  3. 3

    Chávez was elected with 56.2 percent of the vote in December 1998 and took office one month later. In 2000, following the Constitutional Convention, in which the presidential term was increased from five to six years, and presidents were allowed to run for two consecutive terms (the old constitution called for a one-term minimum interval), Chávez ran again and won with 59 percent of the vote. If he is still in power when the 2012 elections roll around, he can either designate someone from his own party to run for a caretaker term before running again in 2018, or modify the constitution. As he swore in his party’s candidates for the National Assembly elections coming up in December, he alerted them that once in office they might be called upon to preside over the first sessions to amend the constitution.

  4. 4

    See my article “Don’t Cry for Me, Venezuela,” referred to above.

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