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A controversial cheap oil deal for London’s buses has propelled Venezuela’s strongman leader, Hugo Chavez, into the limelight once more, says Nick Ryan.


To say that President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias has had a busy year would be something of an understatement. His recent (successful) mission to change Venezeula’s time zone – putting clocks back half an hour to “improve efficiency” as more of “his people will wake up in daylight”, no less – may have illicited bemused laughter from many. Yet in November, “his people” were involved in shocking violence: two young men pictured about to shoot each other, people taken hostage, tear gas thrown, rocks used as missiles. The trigger? Chávez’s plans to make major constitutional changes designed to install “21st-century socialism” throughout Venezuela. But to his opponents it bore all the hallmarks of a dictatorship.

Chávez wanted to scrap the existing time limits on presidential reign, therefore becoming leader for life and assuming power that would allow him to declare martial law, suspend civil liberties and do away with local elections. Previously very popular with the Venezeulan people, the president has now divided the nation. As anti-Chávez protestors took to the streets, so did pro-Chávez groups. People rode the streets on motorbikes wielding guns; at least two students were shot and many others were injured.

Even with these scenes, the 53-year-old ruler did not expect to have his proposals rejected by his people – some even claimed intimidation was employed by his supporters at voting stations to ensure they were pushed through. But then, on 4 December, the Venezeulan people did just that, with 51 per cent rejecting the reforms. Angered, Chávez initially refused to accept the defeat until military leaders warned him that, unless he did, violence was sure to ensue and he risked “a river of blood”. He has now stated that he is happy to stand down in 2012, but many fear more unrest will follow.

Enemy of The States

Venezeula’s socialist president has been an increasing source of international – and particularly American – concern in recent years. Chávez’s country has the largest oil reserves in the Americas, while he is the Bush administration’s fiercest critic in Latin America – a backdoor the US has long tried to influence, with backing for dictators, right-wing coups and massive military aid in the war on drugs. He is on friendly terms with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. He was declared a hero and given a medal by the Iranian president, he once eulogised Chairman Mao and shared drinks with Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, after most of the world declared the latter an international pariah. During a sanctions-era visit to Iraq he even said that Saddam Hussein was “a well-informed man... I had the honour to tour Baghdad in his car, which he drove himself”.

Bizarrely, he’s even causing friction in British political circles, after securing a deal with former London mayor ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone to supply cut-price oil and help the poorest Londoners get cheap bus travel. In return, a team of Greater London Authority officials are advising Venezeula on recycling, waste management and carbon emissions. But Richard Barnes, deputy leader of the London Assembly Conservatives, attacked it, saying. “London should not do business with third-rate South American dictators with appalling human-rights and democratic records.”

But London isn’t the first time Chávez has moved into the West: in November 2005, Venezuela signed a deal with the US state of Massachusetts to provide cheap heating oil to poor households. Similar deals were also signed in Boston and New York, much to the White House’s chagrin.

A new era

Chávez was elected as president of Venezuela in 1998 with an overwhelming majority, marking the demise of a cosy oligarchy that had ruled in the oil-rich South American country for over 40 years. Chávez, a military general who in 1992 had tried to seize power in a failed military coup, had swept to power with a promise of a ‘Bolívarian Revolution’, named after the Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar, who liberated much of South America from direct Spanish colonial rule.

Venezuelans are split between a majority who says he speaks for the poor, and those who say he has become increasingly autocratic. His supporters claim he is the first Venezuelan to defend the rights of the poor, while critics accuse him of trying to emulate Cuba’s communist system.

Chávez openly admires Castro and is one of the few Latin-American leaders to openly criticise neoliberalism, but he remains to many a contradiction. He is a Leftist coup leader who introduced a new constitution, written by an elected constitutional assembly, and an icon for the anti-globalisation movement. Yet he is also an active member of OPEC, the oil producers’ club. He is the leader who famously makes lengthy speeches on the state airwaves just like Castro (eight-hour TV shows), but who tolerates a hostile press.

He has introduced numerous populist measures, such as opening a tuition-free medical school and offering free healthcare, but the country remains violent and corrupt. And although his constitutional reforms were rejected, he has recently been given the power to rule by decree in certain areas.

Read 'Street battles, Bush baiting and bendy buses' from Shortlist magazine

Power to the people

Opposition to Chávez’s government has taken several directions, including a coup in 2002, which fell after less than 24 hours, and mass nationwide strikes. Yet he remains popular with the poor – of which there are many in oil-rich Venezeula – for his stance against the world’s ‘big boys’.

Chávez’s nationalisation politics and deals with Russia, Iran and China have upset the US. He has crusaded against American politics and politicians, though rather oddly still sells the country a great deal of oil. Many suspect the CIA was behind the failed army putsch in 2002. His growing ties to Iran prompted US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to brand him a threat to hemispheric stability. “I sting those who rattle me,” Chávez said recently in his weekly TV address, “so don’t mess with me, Condoleezza!” Meanwhile, Pat Robertson, a religious broadcaster and close friend of President Bush, even suggested that Chávez was a madman who should be assassinated.

In turn, Chávez hates Bush, gloating about him looking “wounded” when things are not going his way, and claiming for some time that the US is planning an invasion of Venezuela. “We have detected with intelligence reports plans of a supposed invasion,” Chávez once said in a BBC interview, calling the Bush administration “an imperialist government” (he even accused the Dutch of taking part).

Perhaps one of the funnier moments came during a UN General Assembly speech last year, when Chávez notably said, “The devil came here yesterday,” gesturing to where George W had stood during the previous day.

With Venezuela signing more and more oil and gas agreements worldwide – Jamaica and the impoverished Haiti have just been added to London – it seems unlikely the world will be able to ignore this charismatic, if eccentric, leader. And with Chávez making an enemy of the US administration, many feel that this leader could become one of the greatest threats to international stability.

This story was commissioned for Shortlist magazine © 2007



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When Presidents speak:

Classic quotes from the democratically elected men and women who've shaped our world.

Bill Clinton, US
“Sometimes I feel like a fire hydrant looking at a pack of dogs.”

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus
"Pressure is currently being put on Belarus through the weapons of mass destruction – there is no other name for them – that is the mass media. [They] are the most powerful weapons today.”

Vladimir Putin, Russia
“You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran
“We believe that atomic energy is a blessing given by God... It’s an opportunity. It is a healthy energy.”

Jacques Chirac, France
“The only thing [the English] have ever done is for European agriculture is mad cow disease."

Augusto Pinochet, Chile
“I’m not a dictator. It’s just that I have a grumpy face.”

Vicente Fox, Mexico
“We must put together countries that produce drugs, countries that traffick, and countries that consume, and through this multilateral effort really stop the growing of crime.”

Lecha Walesa, Poland
“I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things.”

Corazón Aquino, Philippines
“I know my limitations, and I don’t like politics. I was only involved because of my husband.”

Chávez hates Bush and crusades against his politics and politicians, though oddly still sells the US a great deal of oil Chávez claims the ideology of Jesus.