Happy anniversary, Hugo: Chavez marks 10 years in power

CARACAS, Venezuela — One-time soldier and failed coup-plotter Hugo Chavez celebrates an extraordinary 10 years as Venezuela's elected president on Monday. It hasn't been a dull decade.

A bully, a friend of the poor, a jester, a brilliant political strategist, a showman, a statesman, a charmer, a pragmatist, an egomaniac with grand delusions, he's been all this and more since he took the oath of office on Feb. 2, 1999.

Chavez, 54, has eclipsed his ailing mentor, Fidel Castro, to become the undisputed leader of a resurgent Latin American left, and he has no desire to yield that role anytime soon.

"El Comandante," as he's known to his fervent followers, is asking Venezuelans to give him the chance to serve as president for life. On Feb. 15, voters will decide whether to lift term limits that otherwise would force Chavez out of the presidential palace in 2013.

Even if he wins the referendum — and polls find him with a slight advantage — the challenges won't end anytime soon.

Indeed, Chavez appears willing to gamble hugely by continuing to spend billions of petro-dollars on the poor — in a bid to create what he calls 21st-century socialism — even though the collapse in oil prices is likely to cost his government at least half its export income this year.

Which will come first, a rise in world oil prices that will replenish Chavez's treasury or the crash of Venezuela's economy, which could threaten his hold on power?

Don't bet against Chavez. He's a survivor. Locked up after a 1992 coup attempt, he gained his release from prison and won an underdog race for president in 1998 by vowing to be an agent for change. As president, he's survived a coup that ousted him for 48 hours, a crippling strike by the country's all-powerful oil company and a recall election.

All the while, he's outsmarted opponents, befuddled Washington and won headlines from Moscow to Beijing.

Chavez reels off statistics showing that fewer Venezuelans are poor now than before he became president, but is that simply because he had the good fortune to be president when oil prices reached unprecedented heights? Has he created a society and economy that will better the lives of ordinary Venezuelans for years? Appraising his presidency will hinge on the answers to those questions.

The son of schoolteachers from Venezuela's western plains, Chavez came to power railing against the "corrupt elites" who he said had squandered "several Marshall Plans" worth of oil income. Most Venezuelans, he thundered, festered in poverty and squalor.

He promised to root out corruption in politics, business, unions, even the church. He said he'd dismantle the cabals of judges and lawyers who bought and sold justice.

As for the economy, "We can no longer solely depend," he said, "on that external variable which is the price of a barrel of oil." The economy must be diversified, poverty abolished and — above all — democracy extended to the masses, he said.

Ten years on, the results are mixed.

Venezuela has had repeated national elections, and Chavez has won all but one of them. Free speech remains alive and well, to a point. Opponents tee off in newspapers, but the government and Chavez allies have virtual control of the airwaves.

Poverty has been halved, according to official figures, after peaking at 54 percent of the population in 2004.

Unemployment has dropped to around 6 percent, thanks in part to a dramatic expansion in the government payroll. Infant mortality has declined from 21.4 to 13.7 per thousand live births, according to the Health Ministry.

A raft of so-called social "missions" dispense food, health care, education and other benefits to the poor, often with the assistance of Cuban teachers and doctors.

"Chavez deserves credit for just one thing," said Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the daily newspaper Tal Cual and an acerbic critic of the president. "He made poverty the central issue."

Many social indicators aren't so encouraging, however. The housing deficit has worsened, by the government's own account. Inflation, which hits the poorest hardest, spiked to 32 percent last year, even higher than it was 10 years ago.

Venezuela is even more addicted to oil income now. Last year, 93 percent of its export revenues came from oil, compared with 68 percent before Chavez came to power.

An ominous sign: The state oil corporation, Petroleos de Venezuela, produces around a million barrels a day fewer than it did 10 years ago. Recent news reports indicate that PDVSA can't pay all its bills.

Chavez's anti-corruption campaign floundered. Last year, Venezuela ranked 158 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's worldwide corruption index. A major reason is the impunity enjoyed by government officials, thanks to a justice system that follows the president's dictates.

This, combined with incompetent, underfunded and crooked police forces, has contributed to a spiral in crime rates. Last year there were almost 15,000 murders in a country of 28 million, compared with fewer than 5,000 in 1998.

Two analysts from Human Rights Watch came to Caracas last year to issue a damning report. It complained of systematic political discrimination and the government's "open disregard for the principles of separation of powers." As if to confirm its findings, government officials ordered the report's authors put on the next plane out of the country.

Along the way, Chavez has been willing to follow controversial announcements with dramatic U-turns.

He said repeatedly that he didn't favor re-election for anyone other than himself. In the upcoming referendum, however, voters are being asked to allow all elected officials to seek re-election.

A charismatic leader, Chavez has established a tight bond with millions of poor Venezuelans, one that he reinforces every Sunday on "Hello President," his live television show. On it, he breaks into song, cracks jokes, insults foreign leaders and admonishes ministers to serve the public better.

His formula is working. Chavez still inspires widespread support.

"He's done lots of great stuff," said Leon Tapia, a retired car mechanic from the working-class El Valle district of Caracas. "My wife and I get a regular pension, which covers our basic bills.

"If we get a twinge of any complaint, we drop in on the Cuban doctors at the local CDI" — government-run clinic — "and get free treatment. As a senior citizen, I travel free on the subway, and if I take a holiday my airfare is half-price."

For many, the passion for Chavez verges on the religious.

Red-shirted Chavistas hand out fliers in the streets with "10 reasons to vote 'yes' " for the constitutional amendment. #2: "Chavez loves us and so is incapable of wishing us ill."

Chavez suffered his only national election defeat in December 2007, when Venezuelans rejected his first attempt to end term limits, part of 69 proposed changes to the constitution.

Like a smart military strategist, Chavez retreated, restudied the terrain and countered with the slimmed-down re-election proposal. A recent poll found that his proposal has made up a 15-point deficit over the past two months.

Victory could mean that Chavez will remain as president for another 20 years — his goal — as long as he keeps winning elections. Defeat could stamp an expiration date on his presidency and weaken his power to reshape not only Venezuela, but also all of Latin America.

(Gunson is a special correspondent for The Miami Herald in Caracas.)


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