Is Venezuela breeding its own Castro?

Miami Herald
August 9, 1999

CARACAS -- Retired air force Gen. Manuel Andara likes to tell the story of a friend who decided to invest in Cuba as he watched Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez grow more and more powerful.

Andara says he asked the friend if he wasn't worried about Cuban President Fidel Castro's communism. ''Yes,'' the friend replied. ''But over there it's ending, and over here it's just beginning.''

Ever since Chavez's December election on a left-of-center platform, comparisons between Chavez and Castro have been a staple of Caracas chatter. But now, following his party's crushing victory in July 25 elections for an assembly that will write a new constitution, the comparisons have taken on renewed urgency.

''Now we have a permanent revolution!'' Chavez said Tuesday as he addressed the Constituent Assembly's opening session, adding that he favored a ''humanist'' society in which the government has the controlling role in the nation's economy.

With absolute control of the Constituent Assembly, opponents charge, Chavez will now show himself for what he really is -- a young version of Castro, a dictator at heart who abuses the very tools of Venezuela's 42-year-old democracy to crush all opponents.

Defenders say the 45-year-old Chavez is a well-meaning patriot under unfair attack by entrenched, corrupt enemies who are forcing him into policies and language far more radical than he would like.

Similarities and a strong friendship do exist between Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup in 1992 and was elected in December, and Castro, who led a 1959 revolution and has ruled Cuba ever since.

Like Castro, Chavez advocates an almost naive vision of a moral, egalitarian society and a strong central government that by dint of good intentions alone will erase his nation's myriad troubles.

References to Bolivar

He is a nationalist who embraces a pan-Latin American ideology, tinged with an anti-Americanism that sees the United States as a foreign power. He calls his thinking ''Bolivarian,'' after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general who helped free several South American nations from Spain in the 19th Century.

Chavez brands all supporters as patriots and all critics as corrupt traitors. He promises to respect his opponents but almost in the same breath threatens them with violence if they try to block his designs.

''They have been knocked out, and if they know what's good for them, they will stay down,'' Chavez said last week in reference to opponents who were badly defeated in the July 25 vote.

Chavez is messianic in his sense of personal mission, a militarist who admits feeling more comfortable among soldiers, and a fanatic follower of baseball.

Violent imagery

His fiery speeches may not reach Castro's marathon lengths -- one to two hours is normal, against four to six hours for the Cuban leader -- but they are laden with the same imagery of violent struggles over everything from high food prices to political cronyism.

Chavez, like Castro, likes to make a show of the ''independence'' of government agencies and politicians he in fact controls, and makes public ''suggestions'' that he knows are virtual orders to his followers.

One Chavez proposal for the creation of Bolivarian Youth Brigades remains undefined but has already sparked comparisons to the Cuban and Soviet Pioneers, highly politicized versions of the Boy Scouts.

As in Castro's early days in power, Venezuela's poor are ardently supporting Chavez and his vows to demolish an old political system notorious for corruption and for frittering away the country's vast natural wealth.

As in Cuba circa 1959, Venezuela's ruling elites are solidly opposed to Chavez and considering exile, mostly in Miami, while the middle classes endlessly debate the reality behind his extremist rhetoric.

And like Castro in his early years, Chavez has been frustratingly vague on the exact details of his future plans.

''He's clear that he has to knock down a building and construct another. But he's not clear on what he wants to build,'' said Fausto Masso, a Cuban-born political analyst who has lived in Venezuela since 1962.

Some differences

But there are also differences between Chavez and Castro -- at least for now.

Chavez does not appear to be a classic Marxist who insists on total state control over the means of production, though he has opposed the privatization of large public enterprises and agencies.

He has not resorted to Leninist control methods such as neighborhood watch groups, media censorship, travel restrictions, ration cards or loyalist ''mass organizations'' of groups such as women or workers.

Perhaps most significantly, Castro and Chavez came to power under vastly different circumstances that made their challenges and their possible replies different.

While Castro stepped into the vacuum left by the violent collapse of the Batista regime, Chavez was elected and, last February, assumed the reins of stable government institutions ruled by civilians since 1958.

Although Castro began destroying what was left of the old Cuban system as soon as he reached power, Chavez has so far pushed the envelope and broken some laws by appointing military officers to government jobs, but stayed largely within the bounds of the Venezuelan game.

In contrast to Cuba, Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church is strong and conservative, and its newspapers and periodicals, largely dominated by free-market advocates, regularly carry articles attacking Chavez policies.

On good terms with U.S.

Unlike Castro, Chavez has managed so far to stay on good terms with the United States, which imports from Venezuela almost 20 percent of all its crude and refined petroleum products.

And while the Soviet Union stood ready in 1961 to provide financial and political support for Castro's swing toward communism, today there is no communism to speak of, no Soviet Union at all.

But if all those differences mean that Chavez is unlikely to follow Castro's path, there's nothing to keep him off the roads traveled by traditional Latin American strong men, or caudillos, such as Argentina's Juan Peron.

''I don't think he is going to impose a socialist system,'' Masso said. ''Chavez is winning by following the rules. . . . But if he runs into a roadblock, if someone says 'no' to him, he'll stage a coup and sweep away all his opposition.''

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