Chavez lives to fight another day

May 01 2003 | by

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ of Venezuela maintains that when the army exiled him to a Caribbean island for 48 hours in April he experienced a road-to-Damascus conversion. He claims that he and the Archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Ignacio Velazco, prayed together on the beach of Orchila, and that his former enmity towards the Catholic Church was transformed into love. He pleaded with his countrymen to follow the example that he and the cardinal had set by 'asking God to help us to take each other by the hand and accept our differences'. He is reputed also to have confessed to the cardinal and apologised for excesses committed during his three years in office.

A two-day exile

Chavez's sudden reconciliation with the Church that he had until recently derided and opposed is viewed by many in Venezuela with some scepticism as a disingenuous attempt to fool the army, which remains the most powerful single force in Venezuela today. It was army support which brought Chavez the presidency in the 1999 elections, but he lost their support, and that of the Church, big business and the media, by his bull-in-a-china-shop performance over amendments to the constitution. Deeply conservative and jealous of its privileged position in the country, the army did not take kindly to Chavez's 'Bolivarian' revolution designed to attract Cuba and Libya. The political parties, too, could not tolerate his hectoring manner and long-winded oratorical style based on Fidel Castro and Muammar Qadhafi.

Chavez did not succeed in delivering on social reform or distribution of wealth, and widespread dissatisfaction with his record was translated into uncontrolled rioting in April, when peaceful demonstrations were attacked by Chavez supporters and Bolivarians. More than a dozen people were killed, and hundreds injured as the National Guard tried to control the rioters. Enough was enough, the generals decided, and packed him off to cool his heels on Orchila. Miraculously, within a day of his session on the beach with Cardinal Velazco, he was released from the island and again sworn in as president.

In fact, it is probable that it was not the virtues of Chavez that made the army think again, or even divine intervention, but the errors of his replacement and successor, Pedro Carmona, who took over the presidency in Chavez's absence, and who was clearly hoping to stay there a few years or more. Carmona was too obviously corrupt, too plainly the darling of the white elite and favourite of the USA, too keen on looking after his own interests and those of his cronies, the very things that Chavez wasn't. Chavez's return from exile was welcomed by the poor, but not by the people whom Carmona was favouring. No one knows better than Chavez that if he wants to stay in power he must win the support of all social and political strata, not only those who shout for him in political jamborees.

From rags to riches

Oil wealth has transformed Venezuela from one of the poorest to one of the richest of Spain's former colonies. It is now in the same league as Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay. The country, discovered by the Spanish in 1520, was liberated by Simon Bolivar in 1823, and became an independent republic in 1830 after having been part of the vast Republic of Colombia. Venezuelans probably enjoy greater freedom than most of their Latin American neighbours, but human rights abuses are frequent and serious, while living conditions are appalling. This was dramatically demonstrated during the flash floods caused by torrential and continuous rain in December 1999. Shacks and makeshift dwellings from hundreds of slum areas, the barrios, were simply swept away by the rushing waters. The devastation was immense, and the problems associated with re-building are enormous. As always, it is the poor who suffer most.

Human rights abuses

The worst abuses are those connected with law-enforcement. Arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, long sentences, beating and occasional killing of detainees, and torture are common and well documented, not least by Amnesty International. There are frequent prison riots; it is estimated that an average of 600 detainees are killed every year in these disturbances. The legal system is slow, corrupt and subject to political pressure. Women's rights are established by law but are frequently ignored or abused. Children take over the streets, begging and selling themselves, stealing and pilfering. UNICEF estimated in 1993 that about 200,000 of children under 18 were on the streets, with another 170,000 as near professional beggars.

The greater part of Venezuela's 25 million population live in or near the coast, where the industrial pollution is the worst. It has also affected Venezuela's two huge lakes, Valencia and Maracaibo, which are badly poisoned by sewage and oil production respectively. As to the interior, deforestation has progressed at the rate of a thousand square miles a year, with the loss of indigenous tribes, their villages and hunting grounds. The Yanomamo on the Brazilian border have been especially badly affected, with numbers down to 15,000 in scarcely more than 125 villages.

Catholicism well-established

Dominican and Franciscan priests brought the faith to Venezuela in the early sixteenth century, and in the seventeenth century Capuchins founded mission stations around Caracas, while the Jesuits opened missions along the Orinoco river. But much of the work of setting up this network was destroyed by the ravages of war in Venezuela's struggle for independence from Spain in the nineteenth century. Venezuela has remained a strongly Catholic country, with the Church in full support of the state although it has no formal links with it.

Protestant churches are also active in Venezuela, and generally enjoy good relations with Catholics. The Bible Society has been there since the nineteenth century, and the Evangelical Free Church Association established itself in 1920. Seventh Day Adventists arrived in 1910, and Pentecostal Assemblies of God came in 1917. Baptists are active, and a number of smaller USA-based groups are also represented. Jehovah's Witnesses have been in the country since 1936, possibly the largest non-Catholic denomination, with about 200,000 adherents. As to non-Christians, traditional beliefs remain strong, particularly among indigenous people. Afro-American spiritism is evident in the Maria Lonza cult, a syncretist movement combining traditional beliefs with certain aspects of Catholicism. Baha'is are on the increase, but Judaism, with only two Sephardic Jewish groups from Spain, is probably dying out.

Freedom of religion

Discrimination based on religious belief is banned by the constitution, and full freedom of conscience and belief guaranteed by law. Ecclesiastical matters are in the hands of the Department of Religion and Indian Affairs. The Law Concerning Missions has not been revised since its promulgation in 1915, but recent legislation suggests that a new, more liberal spirit may be on the rise: for example, Indians are no longer considered second class citizens, and missionaries no longer enjoy special privileges. There is no formal link between Church and State but the clergy have traditionally been supporters of the government in power, although their sympathies may no longer be so predictable.

Many Venezuelans look back nostalgically to the time of the dictator Juan Vicente Gomez who ruled the country with an iron hand from 1908 to 1935. He was responsible for the development of oil resources, which he managed by playing the major companies off against each other. Many see Hugo Chavez, a former Marine colonel, as being in the same uncompromising mould - of humble birth, with a strong streak of ruthlessness - and believe that he could be Venezuela's president for decades to come. First, however, Chavez will have to mend his fences with the army and big business, and make himself more attractive to the USA. A good relationship with the Church would be a useful start.

Updated on October 06 2016