Little Green Footballs

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Two Venezuelas

Great piece here by Johann Hari about Venezuala, Chavez and the calls for his assasination.

Venezuela is living in the shadow of the other September 11th. In 1973, on a day synonymous with death, Salvador Allende – the democratically elected left-wing President of Chile – was bombed and blasted from power. The CIA and the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had decided the “irresponsibility” of the Chilean people at the ballot box needed to be “rectified” – so they installed a fascist general, Augusto Pinochet. He ‘disappeared’ at least 3000 people and tortured 27,000 more as he clung to power right up to 1990. Since the Venezuelans elected Hugo Chavez, their own left-wing democrat, in a 1998 landslide, they have been waiting for their September 11th. That’s why it did not surprise anyone here this week when Pat Robertson - one of America’s leading evangelicals and a friend of George Bush - openly called for a US-backed murder of their President.

In the four corners of the Plaza Bolivar – Caracas’ Trafalgar Square – there are groups of citizens who work in shifts, waiting, permanently waiting, to mobilise for when an attack on Chavez happens. They are known as the ‘hot corners’, and everybody in the city knows to head there if there is an attack on Venezuela’s elected leader. Laydez Primera, 34, has been doing an eight-hour shift. He explains, “Los esqualidos [the squalid ones, as the opposition is often called] and Bush have tried everything to get rid of Chavez. They know we have elected him in totally open elections, but they don’t care. They have tried forcing a recall referendum in the middle of Chavez’s term, but the President won by 60 percent. They have tried saying the elections are rigged, but the opposition itself asked Jimmy Carter to come and watch the elections, and he said they were totally free. He didn’t say that about the election of Bush in Florida! And they even tried staging a coup. We will never, never forget that.”

The coup, the coup. Everybody here has their stories about the 2002 coup d’etat, and the strange 47-hour Presidency of Venezuela’s business leader Pedro Carmona Estanga. Robertson’s call caused a cascade of memories to burst across the streets of Caracas. That April, Chavez was kidnapped and removed from power in a decapitation of democracy orchestrated by the media, a few generals, and the wealthy elite. Carmona proceeded to dissolve the Supreme Court, the Constitution and the elected National Assembly and assume total control of the country. This was immediately welcomed by the Bush administration. They were eager to ensure the largest pot of oil outside the Middle East - providing fifteen percent of US domestic consumption – was placed back into the hand of US corporations, rather than a left-winger with his own ideas about oil revenue. It later emerged that they had been funding many of the coup leaders.

Only the story didn’t end there. Venezuela refused to be Chile. As Judith Patino, a 57-year old grandmother and street-seller who lives in one of the shanty-towns in the West of Caracas, explains: “We would not let our democracy be destroyed. We refused. Everybody from this barrio, everybody from all the barrios, went onto the streets of Carcas. Of course we were afraid, we thought there would be massacres, but we had chosen our President and we were governing our own country and we would not surrender.” Over a million people took to the streets, surrounding the Miraflores Palace – the Venezuelan Downing Street – and calling for Chavez to return. Los Esqualidos scurried away; Chavez returned to the Miraflores by helicopter, and Caracas erupted into what one young woman told me was “the biggest, maddest party Venezuela has ever seen.”

Yet, three years on, the country is still split. There is the rich twenty percent, who for over a century received all the oil profits - until Chavez came to power and began to distribute them more widely. They welcomed the coup and rejoiced at Robertson’s comments. And, glaring at them across a chasm of incomprehension, there is the poor eighty percent, who defended democracy and Chavez. A taxi-ride across Caracas shows how small the physical divide is between these Two Venezuelas, the conflicting mental universes that share a country. Santa Fe, in the East of the city, could be a slice of Beverley Hills. Palatial gated communities stretch along the hillsides, interrupted only by private golf courses and turrets for security guards to peer from. I am surprised to spot one of the battered, chugging public buses, which always seem to be held together by sellotape and goodwill. “For their servants,” the taxi-driver explains.

Read it all.

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