Chaos and Constitution

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez clings to power thanks largely to the passionate support of the nation’s poor.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

You can buy a plastic-bound copy of the Venezuelan Constitution for 60 cents, a leather-clad copy for $3, a coffee-table edition for $5. Not that you really need a copy of your own, since someone standing near you on the subway in Caracas will have one in his pocket. Or you can always listen to one of the ongoing debates at a downtown park. “Look at this article,” someone will shout, and a half dozen people will flip through the constitution’s 35,000 words and 350 articles to find the pertinent passage. “Yes,” someone else will cry out. “But this one here is more to the point.”

Leila Escobar, a lab technician in her early 30s, carries a pocket-size copy of the new constitution, bound in blue plastic. I meet her late one morning in Nueva Grenada, a grimy, run-down neighborhood in the Venezuelan capital, and the mid-October day is unseasonably hot. As a passing cloud offers relief, Escobar pauses to wipe the sweat from her face with a red handkerchief. She has walked seven miles already, near the head of a march by hundreds of thousands who have come out in support of President Hugo Chávez. It has been six months since Chávez was ousted briefly in a coup, and now his opponents — business leaders, a handful of military officers, almost all of the nation’s media — are once again trying to orchestrate his removal. So Escobar and other chavistas have taken to the streets, vowing to protect the president — with their bodies, if necessary.

The reason for their support has everything to do with the little blue book Escobar carries. In one of his first acts as president, Chávez held a nationwide referendum on the constitution that effectively redrew the political boundaries of Venezuela from the ground up. Over the past four years, through a series of new laws and programs, he has mobilized the poor to participate in what had always been a top-down, two-party political system dominated by the country’s upper and middle classes. “The president has brought us hope, and he has brought us democracy,” says Escobar. “They will not take him from us.”

Like most Venezuelans, Escobar has plenty of reason to be dissatisfied. Since Chávez won election in 1998, even many of his staunchest supporters believe he has mismanaged the economy and picked needless fights with the opposition. Under his leadership, Venezuela has fallen into severe recession: Factories are shuttered, inflation is soaring, and credit has disappeared. The government sits atop the largest reserve of oil in the hemisphere, yet upwards of 40 percent of Venezuelans still live in poverty. But despite the widespread economic misery, what upsets Escobar most is that Venezuela’s rich want Chávez out of power, now. Chávez, she says, is the only leader who has ever cared for Venezuela’s poor. “The rich have always had so much, and we, nothing,” she explains as thousands of marchers — mostly of mestizo or African descent — surge past, blowing whistles, singing, waving flags. “Now Chávez wants the rich still to have, but us too, a little.”

Since the demonstration in October, tensions in Venezuela have escalated to the brink of civil war. A nationwide general strike, called by Chàvez opponents, has stretched into its third week. Almost every day, it seems, some sort of protest disrupts life in Caracas — mass demonstrations, street riots, clashes between government supporters and Chàvez critics. In recent weeks, Chàvez has ordered the military to take over oil tankers whose crews refused to deliver their cargo, and the Bush administration has weighed in, calling for early elections. For the United States, the stakes in this struggle are high. Venezuela is America’s fourth-largest supplier of oil, providing nearly 15 percent of all U.S. imports. With the Bush administration authorized to wage a war in Iraq that could destabilize oil supplies in the Middle East, Venezuela’s importance to the U.S. economy can scarcely be overstated. “We are married to Venezuela, for better or worse,” says Stephen Johnson, a Latin America analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Yet Venezuela’s government remains in the hands of a man who has become one of the most vocal — and effective — opponents of U.S. interests abroad. Chávez, with his red berets and revolutionary rhetoric, does far more than talk and dress the role of a second Castro. In 1999, he banned U.S. aircraft from flying over Venezuela to patrol for drugs in neighboring Colombia. A year later, he undercut efforts to isolate Iraq by becoming the first head of state since the Gulf War to visit Saddam Hussein, whom he called “a brother.” He took the lead in rejuvenating OPEC, convincing member nations to slash production and thereby quadruple the price of oil. And he has stalled U.S. efforts to enact the Free Trade Area of the Americas, slowing negotiations that would extend the provisions of NAFTA throughout the hemisphere.

Given Chávez’s record, it was scarcely a surprise that the Bush administration was quick to recognize what it demurely called the “change of government” in Caracas last April, when Chávez was temporarily removed from office. After a protest march outside the Miraflores presidential palace erupted in a shoot-out that left 19 dead, the military abruptly placed Chávez under arrest. It soon became clear that high-ranking officials in the Bush administration had been in close contact with those plotting the coup — including Pedro Carmona, the Venezuelan businessman who briefly replaced Chávez. But international pressure, coupled with massive demonstrations by the poor, returned Chávez to office within two days.

Since then, the Bush administration has forged an uneasy truce with Chávez, issuing a statement that it will not support any “illegal or violent actions” against his government. With the election in October of leftist Lula da Silva as president of Brazil, Chávez is not the only South American leader who worries Bush. But there’s little doubt that after Iraq, Venezuela is the oil-rich country where the White House would most welcome “regime change.” For now, most of Chávez’s opponents have been careful not to advocate more violence, demanding instead an immediate vote to decide whether he should step down. They portray Chávez as a corrupt authoritarian who represses his own people. His government is but a bubble, they believe; touch it again and it will pop.

If Chávez is ousted, however, it will not be because he is a brutal dictator. He may enjoy sparring with the United States — after the election of Lula, he declared that Brazil would join Cuba and Venezuela in forming “an axis of good” — but in the four years since he took office, his “revolution” has had more to do with de Tocqueville than Marx. Efforts to redistribute wealth have been few. Opposition political parties, as well as the press, operate freely in Venezuela, and the federal police — once among the most feared forces in South America — have not hindered even those advocating outright rebellion. And for the first time in Venezuelan history, ordinary citizens are being encouraged to create and elect local councils, to work with local officials to improve their neighborhoods, to get directly involved in their government. Acting together, these are the people who have become the single most powerful group in Venezuela. These are the people who, in many ways, have made themselves the real sovereigns of Venezuela’s oil.

A few days after the chavista rally, I climb a mountainside to Hoyo de la Puerta, one of the shantytowns that ring Caracas. Here, on either side of a highway, raw brick houses with green corrugated roofs cut into high coastal rainforests that are home to foxes and sloths, snakes and hummingbirds. Some residents work in the city, some grow avocados and oranges, many are unemployed.

Rosa de Peña moved her family of eight here in 1972, when the government bulldozed her oceanside house to clear space for an airport runway. Chávez has provided many neighborhoods with government funds to build sewers, open clinics, and teach residents to read, but the residents of Hoyo de la Puerta are long accustomed to making do on their own. As de Peña, now 75, makes her way down an eroded pathway in her three-inch heels, brown flowered dress, and tinkling steel necklace, she eagerly points out the many small works of her neighbors. Here, a family poured concrete on a steep stretch of path. Here, people strung electric lines through the trees to their homes. Here, a man built a house entirely of stone gathered in the valley below. But at a tiny creek, where seven-year-old Raquel Josefina Pérez bathes, de Peña’s pride fails her. After years of promises by local officials, the neighborhood still has no fresh water, and its 500 children must still make do with sharing 120 desks in a tiny, windowless school. That’s why Raquel is here at ten o’clock in the morning on a school day. “She does not fit,” de Peña says.

For most Venezuelans, daily life has not improved in the material sense since Chávez took office. Yet when people gather in neighborhoods like Hoyo de la Puerta, the talk seldom centers on the price of food or the lack of health care. Instead, what excites them is the new constitution, drafted by a popularly elected assembly in 1999 and approved by an overwhelming vote in December of that year. A somewhat haphazard amalgam, the document protects minority rights, permits people to claim title to their farms and homes, and expands political participation at the grassroots level. De Peña, for example, is particularly excited by a new law that gives citizens the right to take part in the kind of urban planning that drove her from her home 30 years ago. “Before, the government could come and do whatever they wanted to us,” she says, pulling a newsprint copy of the law from her purse and waving it about. “But this paper gives the community a voice. This law forces the authorities to listen.”

The issue of land ownership, especially, inspires poor residents to praise Chávez. As is true of about half the people of Caracas, most here do not hold legal title to the houses in which they live, or to the lots underneath. Some say they bought their land years ago. Others admit they simply took the land and built on it. Now, a new law permits them to “regularize” their ownership by registering their claim.

Indelgard Vargas, an unemployed engineer and father of two small children, says land ownership is partly a matter of self-respect. “It is better to own a little plot,” he says, “than to trespass on a great expanse.” But it also has practical consequences. For the first time, the poor will be able to sell their lots, protect them in court, or mortgage them with a bank. Chávez, the revolutionary, promises to make the poor into property owners — and, in the process, he has already given them a sense of entitlement as citizens. “How can you demand service from the mayor when you don’t pay property taxes?” says Vargas. “And how can you pay any taxes if you don’t own any property?”

Hugo Chávez burst into Venezuelan politics in 1992 very much uninvited, as the mastermind of a coup attempt that saw tanks roll right to the gates of Miraflores. Chávez, at the time a 38-year-old colonel, coordinated a nationwide military uprising against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had implemented an austerity program that seemed to fall hardest on the poor. The government quickly put down the rebellion, which left 70 dead, and Chávez surrendered within hours, asking only that he be granted a chance to speak to his supporters over national television. The time for revolution would come, he promised them: “New possibilities will arise again, and the country will be able to move forward to a better future.” On screen for less than a minute, his rough-hewn manner and straight talk captured the public’s imagination, and he emerged a hero.

Two years in prison only buffed Chávez’s image, as did his efforts to embrace civilian-style politics and to stuff his stout frame into a business suit. His 56 percent showing in the 1998 presidential election set a record, but it was his 80 percent popularity rating that stunned Venezuela’s political establishment. There are many reasons why most of the country’s elite have come to hate Chávez — the declining economy, his refusal to compromise with opponents, his grandiloquent gestures that remind some of Mussolini. “Just the way Chávez speaks is so polarizing he makes it impossible for anyone to work with him,” says Francisco Toro, an analyst with the economic information firm Veneconomia. Many of Chávez’s supporters also fault him for aggravating an already tense situation. “He’s an idiot,” one chavista tells me flatly. “But he’s our idiot.”

Yet much of the hatred for Chávez arises from visceral class antipathy. The son of small-town schoolteachers, Chávez is a powerfully built mestizo with a wide, almost meaty face and thick hands. He’s the sort of man that upper-class Venezuelans expect to see hauling sacks of concrete at a construction site or driving a bus, not running the country. Many refuse even to sit in the same room as Chávez, let alone debate the details of macroeconomic policy or how to divvy up scarce state funds.

For anyone who knew Venezuela during the years of the oil boom, as I did as a foreign correspondent during the late 1980s, the current level of political polarization is shocking. For three decades after the last dictator fell in 1958, the country was often held up as Latin America’s model democracy. There were two powerful political parties, both with a strong base of support among the upper and middle classes, both able to rally large masses of the poor via well-honed patronage systems. It was, everyone liked to say, just like the United States.

This system served the country’s elite well, rewarding them with highly lucrative monopolies in everything from beer bottling to food canning to domestic airlines. It also did well by the millions of immigrants who came from Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the 1930s and 1950s. These people managed most of Venezuela’s industries and service companies, and filled most professional positions. And when the big oil dollars started flowing in the early 1970s, it was a system that organized one of the longest-running fiestas of the 20th century. Awash in a seeming sea of money, Venezuelan elites built themselves wide highways, a sparkling subway, a glittering array of office towers and luxury apartments, a beautiful national theater. They imported great chefs, danced in glamorous clubs, vacationed in Paris, annexed large chunks of Miami. Jeep Wagoneers, bottles of Johnny Walker Black, kilos of French cheese — all were heavily subsidized with public money.

In February 1989, the era of black gold came to a sudden, violent end. Oil prices had been falling for years, and everyone knew the party had to slow. But when the Pérez government tried to pass much of the bill on to the country’s poor through higher bus fares and bread prices, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. At first the mobs burned buses, then they looted and burned stores, then they looted the apartments and houses of anyone who seemed to have more. Scores died in battles among neighbors. And when the army came, many hundreds more were shot down. Yet thousands of people refused to go home, even after soldiers opened fire with automatic rifles. In some neighborhoods, mobs armed only with sticks and rocks repeatedly charged ranks of terrified soldiers trucked in from the countryside. No one knows exactly how many people died, but many estimates put the total at well over 1,000. “The Caracazo,” as the riot was called, was the single bloodiest uprising in Latin America in the last half century.

By taking to the streets, however, Venezuela’s poor became a force that had to be reckoned with. What Chávez has done, through the new constitution, is to start a process of formalizing and solidifying their political power, channeling their anger through political institutions rather than the streets. “Venezuela is a time bomb that can explode at any moment,” Chávez said when the constitution was approved. “It is our task, through the power of the vote, to defuse it now.” Chávez threatens Venezuela’s elite because he wants to turn the mob of February 1989 into what he likes to call el soberano — “the sovereign citizen.” Which is reason enough, in a country where the poor and working class form a solid majority of the voting population, for the elite to want Chávez out.

It’s another hot day in mid-October, and the opposition is mounting a huge march of its own. The occasion is the six-month anniversary of Chávez’s two-day fall from power, and a few hundred thousand people are marching from the leafy, affluent neighborhoods of eastern Caracas toward the squalid center of the city. It’s a big crowd, and noisy, and mostly white. There are housewives, insurance salesmen, lawyers, factory managers, and bar owners, as well as students and assembly-line workers and clerks. There are kids on skateboards and roller blades and bicycles. People blow whistles and bang pots as they almost dance along the route, giving the event a feel more of carnival parade than political protest.

But the passions are very real. “Chávez has to go — today,” says Jorge Laje, a former mechanic who now drives a taxi. Laje once considered him- self a leftist, and in the 1970s he fled to Venezuela to escape from Argentina’s right-wing military government. But now he has a house, two children, and — until the recent recession — a comfortable middle-class life. “Chávez has destroyed the economy, he has destroyed the country,” Laje says. “The only solution is that he go now.”

Democratic Action and COPEI, the two political parties that long dominated Venezuelan politics, have all but collapsed in recent years, and opponents of Chávez now have no real leaders or political platform. What they have is money, and they are voting with their bank accounts and passports. Since Chávez took office, tens of thousands of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans have fled the country, many to the United States. Last year they were on pace to remove an estimated $8 billion from the economy — a staggering 8 percent of the annual gross domestic product.

They also control the media. All of Venezuela’s private television stations and national newspapers are owned by the opposition, and all are employed to deliver an unadulterated flow of anti-Chávez propaganda in the form of news, popular music, even soap operas. The distortions can be dramatic. Today’s anti-Chávez march is covered by all four TV channels from five in the morning until midnight. The pro-Chávez march three days later — though twice as large — is ignored entirely by three of the channels, and covered only sporadically by the fourth. (The American media also played up the anti-Chávez march, inflating its turnout to a million.) The marchers and the media are demanding that a popular referendum on the president be held immediately. They also call on European courts to indict him for crimes against humanity, as Spain did with Pinochet.

It is this charge of repression that most infuriates Chávez’s supporters. Not a single leader of the April coup, they note, is in jail, even though some of them continue to openly advocate his overthrow. Not so long ago, the same could not be said for many of the poor who spoke out against Venezuela’s old regime. Even at the height of the good times, the country’s democracy was a preserve of the upper and middle classes, and it was protected at gunpoint. Anyone who tried to oppose the government from outside the two-party system ran a risk of being arrested, beaten, or killed by the National Guard or the federal police known as the DISIP. The DISIP sported black leather jackets and tall black boots, and the attire was more than a fashion statement.

Juan Contreras was a college student in the 1980s. He was also a member of a left-wing party considered “subversive” by the government. The DISIP and the National Guard routinely broke into his apartment — 46 times in all, he says. Often they arrested him; sometimes they beat him. These days, Contreras places his faith in community organizing rather than party politics. A 39-year-old social worker, he travels around Venezuela to help poor farmers claim title to their land. He also leads a left-oriented group in the 23 de Enero housing project, a collection of immense and decrepit apartment blocks that rise on hills just west of the presidential palace. The group polices the projects at night, raises money to make needed repairs, and helps the elderly get medicine. “It has been years since any political party did anything for us,” says Contreras. “We have to fight for our community by ourselves, every day.”

Contreras doesn’t expect much in the way of material help from the government — but he is grateful to Chávez for calling off the police. The DISIP no longer visit his house, nor do they break up public meetings at the housing project as they did in the past. The president, Contreras says, has created a political environment in which the poor can assemble without fear of reprisals. On this day, a group of neighbors at 23 de Enero has organized a dance to raise money to fix an elevator in the 14-story Apartment Block 28. “For the first time,” Contreras says, “we can breathe.”

It is one thing, of course, to print a constitution, and another entirely to make it work. If oil prices drop, or if Chávez is overthrown, Venezuela could experience an explosion of violence that would make the Caracazo uprising look tame by comparison. Over the long run, however, the greatest danger is that the government will simply lack the resources and wherewithal to build democratic institutions that allow ordinary citizens to have their say, and that they will lose faith in democracy itself. The constitution raised people’s expectations; Chávez now pleads for their patience. “Venezuela is a garden that was destroyed,” he says. “You can’t expect all of our tomatoes to be beautiful and shiny right away.”

At the local level, the new constitution encourages poor communities to create district councils to decide neighborhood affairs. Venezuela has no tradition of electing councils that are open to all parties — or to people of no party — so building them means starting at the very bottom. In the neighborhood of Petare, which includes some of the poorest and most violent barrios in Caracas, Alejandrina Reyes is going door to door with a small team of city workers and student volunteers. The goal is to speak with every adult in each district of roughly 3,000 people, to explain how residents can elect a council of 12 representatives. “It takes two months or more of almost full-time attention to get one community ready to vote,” Reyes says. “And we’ve only been working with the easy communities, the ones where people have already set up associations and cooperatives.” Then she smiles. “It’s slow, but the word is really getting out.”

One of the first to heed the call was Gloria Baroso. Only 40, Baroso has six children and four grandchildren, and has been on her own since her husband left home seven years ago. She runs a cooperative bakery in the El Carmen section of Petare, and also helps out as a nurse when people in the community take sick. Now she holds a seat on the new district council.

Baroso knows that before Chávez, it would have been unthinkable for a single mother who bakes bread for a living to hold elected office in Venezuela. In the street in front of the cooperative, she wipes her hands on her apron and sighs. Even before she joined the council, she had too much to do. “But it’s worth it,” she says. Already, she has seen a profound change. “The Venezuelan people are not the same people they were even a few years ago,” she says. “We know our rights. And no matter what the rich do to Chávez, this is something they can never erase.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.