A Tale of Two Chávezes

For those who loved and reviled Venezuela's president in equal measure, El Comandante leaves behind two very different legacies.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

CARACAS — Hundreds of thousands of citizens, and more than a score of world leaders, gathered Friday, March 8, in the Venezuelan capital to bid farewell to fallen President Hugo Chávez.

People openly wept as the president was eulogized, with many saying that Chávez would live forever in people’s memories. Ana Rodriguez and Nora Albas say they will remember El Comandante as long as they live.

Their reasons, however, are quite different.

Albas, 32, is the wife of a farmer in the central state of Aragua. She’s an admitted rojo rojito (reddest of the red), or a super-Chavista. Thanks to various government loans, Albas and her husband have been able to expand their small 6-acre farm, which is mostly planted in tomatoes and peppers.

The couple said that they have received various farm tools for free and have access to discounted fertilizers and seeds when they are available. Her consejo comunal, or government commune, also paved the lane leading to their farm. She admits that she doesn’t understand that much about socialism, but says it is far superior to the capitalism that preceded it.

"Chávez has made a huge difference in our lives," said Albas, who looks younger than her age. "Thanks to El Comandante, we have much more now than we did before. Our children have more of a future. And now I have a voice in what happens."

Such optimism isn’t shared by Rodriguez, a 30-year-old doctor in the central industrial city of Maracay. She claims that Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year bout with cancer, has destroyed the country, both politically and economically.

"My family owned a farm in Guárico [a central agricultural state] for years. We weren’t rich but we had a comfortable life — but we worked for it. Seven years ago, the government expropriated our farm," she said. "My father gave his life to it, and now he has nothing. They haven’t given us any re-compensation at all. My father used to spend all of his time there. Now his day consists of sitting in front of the computer and playing hearts online."

Her one brother had to emigrate, thanks to Chávez’s policies, Rodriguez said.

"He is a petroleum engineer, and when Chávez nationalized oil operations here, he lost his job at the U.S. company that employed him. He’s bright and hardworking, but he couldn’t work for Petróleos de Venezuela [PDVSA, the state oil company] because he signed the recall petition against Chávez in 2004. If you signed the petition, you’re automatically blacklisted from all government jobs."

More than 2.7 million people signed the petition, or roughly 10 percent of the population. Many subsequently lost their jobs in the resulting witch hunt to root out Chávez’s critics.

"I work in a state hospital and I love my work, but crime is horrible," said Rodriguez. "We’ve had gang members come into the emergency room, hoping to kill people they had shot and had been taken to us. I can’t leave the hospital at night because we have so much crime. And people just assume I have money as I am a doctor."

The two women’s stories hint at what may be El Comandante’s ultimate gift to his country: extreme polarization. Before Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuelans were politically apathetic. That’s no longer the case.

"Chávez’s election shattered the institutional political arrangements by which Venezuela had been governed," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College. "He directed popular discontent into the electoral arena and recast the Venezuelan state as an advocate of those who felt excluded."

Their inclusion, however, has come at a cost, said other analysts.

"Chávez brought in the poor, who were formerly excluded, into the country’s political process. There was a social/economic redistribution of wealth. The downside was the political polarization that occurred under him," said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group political-risk consultancy. "He excluded large parts of society, especially those who disagreed with him."

Albas had little to do with politics before Chávez was elected. Today, she is a member of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and goes door to door before elections, urging her neighbors to get out and vote.

She is active in her commune, and she and her husband have taken an active role in the village where they live. Since Chávez’s death was announced, she has been playing Chavista music and old speeches of El Comandante at full blast so her neighbors can hear.

"Chávez gave us a better life, and we have to continue fighting to improve it," she said.

The government’s social and economic programs — embodied in Chávez’s so-called missions — have had a marked impact on Venezuela, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"Poverty has been reduced by half, and extreme poverty by two-thirds," Weisbrot said.

Government programs have concentrated on health, education, and food. Misión Barrio Adentro, for example, started thousands of clinics in low-income areas, often staffed by Cuban medical personnel. Misión Mercal created a chain of government stores that sell basic foodstuffs at a discount.

But even Albas admitted that Chávez’s revolution has a long way to go.

Her village is plagued by constant power outages, and her husband often has to spend days trying to locate hard-to-find fertilizers, seeds, and insecticides — all of which have skyrocketed in price.

"Crime is horrible," she confirmed, noting that in her village of 2,000 inhabitants there have been four murders in the last year and two kidnappings. "The police do nothing, and the value of a human life means nothing these days. Young people don’t want to work for what they have. They prefer to steal it."

One of her daughters used to go to an elementary school, but it has been closed since September because of heavy rains that compromised its structural integrity. Classes are now being held in a private home that has no running water or electricity. Her other daughter had to transfer to another high school because of constant gunfire outside. The nearest government health clinic has no supplies, said Alba, and she doesn’t trust the Cuban doctors who man a health center in a nearby village.

"We took our daughter to the government health center in an emergency, and they had nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of drugs," she said. "We had to go looking for the drug they prescribed from pharmacy to pharmacy at 6 a.m. It was horrible. And the drug was something commonly prescribed. They just had nothing."

Corruption is also a fact of life in her consejo comunal, where money is constantly being lost. But Albas never blames Chávez for the problems.

"Chávez was honest and cared for us," she said. "His people are another matter. Many of them only mouth support while stealing from the country."

Rodriguez and Albas at least agree about that.

"My boss at the state clinic claims to be a socialist, a revolutionary," said Rodriguez. "But I think his commitment to the revolution goes only as deep as his wearing a red Izod shirt to work. He has used his position to enrich himself. Our health center has little in supplies."

As food supplies have dwindled this winter, absenteeism among food company employees now runs at about 14 percent, according to officials at the country’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce. Labor laws make it near impossible to fire workers, and many have taken advantage of the rulings to sit home and not show up to work.

"Every Sunday it’s the same thing," said Rodriguez. "People come to the center asking me to write them excuses so they don’t have to work on Monday."

Rodriguez often thinks that she should join her brother in seeking a life overseas, but she is reluctant to leave her parents, especially her father who is now overweight, suffering from high blood pressure and high blood sugar. He has stopped trying to get his farm back.

"It’s producing very little now in any case," said Rodriguez. "The people who took it over are basically subsistence farmers. They killed most of the livestock, and they haven’t planted much because they are supposedly waiting for government loans."

Rodriguez is bitter, she admits. She notes, acridly, that food supplies have dwindled thanks to the government’s agricultural policies. Basic foodstuffs such as sugar, cornmeal, cooking oil, coffee, and chicken — which were never in short supply — are now difficult to find.

The government’s foreign exchange policies, which include a fixed rate for the bolívar and limited access to hard currency, have resulted in shortages of many medicines as well. February’s 32 percent devaluation has only made it worse.

"But still the poor support the government," she said, shaking her head. "Chávez is popular now because he bought support with his various programs and giveaways. But at what cost? Today, we have a country where no one wants to work, and the government has become the chief employer. If we didn’t have oil, this would all come crashing down."

It’s hard to argue that Venezuela’s fiscal situation hasn’t markedly worsened under Chávez.

The national debt, including that of state oil company PDVSA, which funds many government programs, has more than quadrupled to $140 billion in the last seven years, as Chávez and his government borrowed heavily to fund social spending, especially in election years. But few Venezuelans seem to care, especially as the country has the world’s largest oil reserves. Meanwhile, Venezuela’ s oil output has fallen 25 percent since Chávez took office.

Albas admitted that she is worried about the future.

"I support the revolution, but sometimes I just wonder if we’re really ready, really prepared for self-government, for socialism," she said. "I just wonder."

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