Is Hugo Chavez the new liberator?
Latin America revolts
By Paul Mcgarr
HUNDREDS of thousands of Colombians held a one-day strike on Thursday of last week. A week earlier neighbouring Peru was hit by massive street demonstrations against what people saw as the rigged re-election of President Fujimori.
They were just the latest scenes of upheaval from Latin America. Argentina, Brazil, Ec-uador, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala have all been hit by protests and strikes. In Mexico the world's longest established ruling party was defeated in the presidential election. The focus of protest in each country is different. But there is a common root to the discontent-a rejection of what commentators dub "neo-liberalism". These pro-market policies were adopted right across Latin America through the 1980s and 1990s.
Local rulers embraced them, and they were backed by the International Monetary Fund and the US government. Peru's Fujimori was held up through the 1990s by the politicians and bankers as a great success story for neo-liberalism. The ingredients in the "neo-liberal" recipe are familiar-privatisation, deregulation and dismantling welfare provision. The result is that over half of families across the continent are now living below the official poverty line.
"We're no longer prepared to carry the weight of the rich on our shoulders," was how one Colombian union leader summed up the mood behind last week's strike there. Yet many of those who have emerged at the head of the new resistance offer little real change.
Mexico's new president is a former Coca-Cola executive. In Peru last week's protests were headed by former World Bank official Alejandro Toledo. There is one important exception to this pattern. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez was easily re-elected as president a week ago, after first winning office in December 1998.
He is being hailed across Latin America and elsewhere as offering a radical alternative to neo-liberalism. "A name is haunting Latin America: that of Hugo Chavez," argued the influential left wing French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique in an article recently.
"Chavez, supported by the forces of the left and the disinherited, is undertaking a peaceful and democratic revolution which is worrying the propagandists of globalisation." Chavez's rhetoric is radical.
He rails against the "rancid oligarchy" who have grown wealthy off the backs of the poor. He labels the rich "squealing pigs" and promises "economic and social revolution". "I want to be the president of the poor," he declares. He has even cultivated links with Cuban president Fidel Castro and denounced US imperialism.
Chavez first came to prominence eight years ago when he led an attempted military coup, which he claimed was directed against the corrupt ruling elite. After spending time in jail he built a base among the country's poor and swept to office in elections in December 1998. Chavez says he will use Venezuela's vast oil wealth to boost public spending and benefit the poor.
After last week's election he unveiled a massive public works programme to create jobs, major land reform, and a plan for subsidised canteens in poor areas. But Chavez is trying to ride two horses. He attempts to balance between mass discontent on the one hand and international capital on the other. The US International Herald Tribune newspaper pointed out that "in appearances before business people Mr Chavez wears a business suit and speaks in measured tones".
Although he denounces "savage capitalism", he encourages foreign investment by multinationals and pledges to honour contracts with the giant oil companies. "My first message to investors is one of confidence," he says. And, as the US Miami Herald newspaper noted, "in his late night victory speech Chavez abandoned his normal attacks on bankers and industrialists" and instead called for "the unity of all Venezuelans".
He also pledged to go ahead with some privatisation and has met with the World Bank and IMF to assure them he will honour debt payments. Despite his rhetoric, Chavez insists, "We are not constructing a socialist model." His "revolution", he says, is one that will take place "within the framework of capitalism" and its aim is to "modify the neo-liberal model".
His popularity among the poor is huge. But their expectations do not fit easily with Chavez's attempts to limit change to what business and the institutions of global capitalism will tolerate. Poverty is enormous in Venezuela, and getting worse. In the last year the economy has shrunk by some 7 percent and unemployment has soared to nearly 20 percent.
For now Chavez has managed to blame that on the legacy of previous regimes. This will start wearing thin if he does not deliver real change. And his acceptance of the limits of the system will severely curb the change he will be able to deliver. Then he is likely to face protest from the very people who now place so much hope in him.