Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is using revenues from the energy sector to bankroll what he calls his "socialism for the 21st century." The charismatic autocrat is trying to cement his hold on power in a bid to silence a growing political opposition.
A poster proclaiming "fatherland, socialism or death" adorns the military prison in Los Teques, a suburb of the Venezuelan capital Caracas. Relatives of the prisoners throng the stairs that lead to the cell wing. The soldiers poke holes in meat pies, cakes and other small presents, looking for cell phones and weapons.
The most famous prisoner in the country is held in a spacious cell on the third floor. General Raul Isaias Baduel, 54, used to be defense minister and commander-in-chief of the army. Now he eagerly accepts a couple of newspapers that his guards have allowed through. He has no access to telephones or the Internet.
Five months ago, a group of armed men waylaid him near his home. When he tried to use his mobile phone to call for help, one of the assailants pressed a pistol against his forehead. He was driven in an unmarked vehicle to a base where his captors identified themselves as members of the military intelligence agency.
The state prosecutor alleges that after Baduel stepped down as defense minister two years ago, he embezzled the equivalent of $100,000 (70,000) from state coffers. The soldiers who can allegedly substantiate these accusations have yet to make a statement. A court hearing has been postponed because the judge is allegedly ill. "I'm a political prisoner," says the general. He holds an old friend of his responsible for his arrest: President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.
A Cunning Populist
Back when they were young soldiers, the two friends vowed to "break the chains of the oligarchy" to allow the Venezuelan people to lead a free and just life. They took this oath in December 1982 under a centuries-old tree, under which South America's 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar is said to have once rested. It was the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution and Hugo Chavez's rise to power.
It has been a rocky road to the top. After a failed coup and two years in prison, Chavez achieved his objective when he won democratic elections in December 1998. Today, more than a decade later, the 55-year-old Chavez is primarily concerned with cementing his autocratic hold on power.
The young hothead has become a cunning populist who rules by plebiscite. Chavez has won nearly 10 elections and referendums (and lost one, two years ago, that would have given him the possibility of indefinite re-election). His regime has split families and destroyed friendships. He has caused tens of thousands of Venezuelans to leave the country and live abroad.
By now the caudillo is ruling the country as if it were his private hacienda. He prefers to exert his influence via television. On Sundays all channels have to broadcast his self-aggrandizing one-man live show, "Aló Presidente," along with a shorter edition that goes out a number of times each week. All official appearances also have to be broadcast, easily giving Chavez 20 hours of air time each week.
Folks Songs and Jokes
On his TV show, Chavez entertains his audience with folk songs and coarse jokes. He comments on the worldwide political situation and reads from Bolivar's works. He dismisses and appoints ministers on live television, and advertises cell phones and shampoos produced by nationalized companies. He recounts his bordello visits as a young soldier and pokes fun at the whiskey consumption of his fellow Venezuelans. When a caller complains that the state hospitals are overcrowded, he promises: "Don't worry, I'll send over my personal physician." And he sends him.
The monologues last for up to eight hours. He seems to have inexhaustible reserves of energy. When Chavez recently canceled half of the anniversary show of "Aló Presidente," which had been planned to last four days, many Venezuelans speculated that there must be a political crisis. Three days later, Chavez returned to the airwaves with a puffy face, after reportedly suffering from indigestion. His opponents believe that he uses drugs to maintain his edge.
His televised appearances have recently become unusually aggressive. Chavez has assumed a more confrontational tone, deriding political opponents as "enemies" who should be "destroyed." Like his great idol Fidel Castro, when it comes to political confrontations, he always thinks in military terms.
'Chavez, I Love You!'
"Mi Comandante" is how the speaker of the parliament greeted him when the president appeared before the national assembly to mark the 10th anniversary of the Venezuelan constitution in early August. Chavez stepped out of an armored American-made off-road vehicle, and a host of aide-de-camps with red berets hurried ahead of him.
Before the caudillo entered the plenary chamber, he walked once around the courtyard of the parliamentary building, where hundreds of his supporters in red uniforms had gathered on the balconies and balustrades. They had been waiting for him for hours.
Marlinda Chorrillo, a diminutive 62-year-old, had come from Catia, a shanty town near Caracas. She elbowed her way to the front, hoping to be able to hug her president just once, or at least tug on his shirt sleeve. "Chavez, I love you!" she yelled over the din of the crowd. His supporters revere the head of state like a messiah. Many have hung his portrait over the family altar, next to the other savior.
The president seized the hands that reached out for him, and could barely move forward. A few Indians, half-naked in their tribal costumes, had been flown in from the Amazon region just for the occasion. They were allowed to approach him and he embraced them. Beads of sweat formed on his boxer's nose.
Chavez is a "zambo," as dark-skinned individuals of mixed ancestry are known in Venezuela. Caracas's light-skinned elite deride him as a "monkey," but they are powerless against his charisma. After he had hugged the Indians, they raised their lances in his honor and then Chavez's aides pushed him into the parliament.
The Path toward Socialism
Shortly thereafter, when he appeared before the national assembly, his suit had been smoothed down, and his tie had been perfectly straightened. Chavez had now become a typical statesman. He brandished a small red book, the constitution of 1999, which enshrines his right to re-election. "This book guarantees our path toward socialism," he said.
His friend Baduel had helped pen the original constitution, which is said to be the most democratic in the history of Venezuela. But Chavez felt that it needed to be more socialist. In December 2007, he called for a vote on a number of additional articles designed to establish his leftist policies and guarantee him the right to indefinite re-election. Baduel called on voters to oppose the move, and it spelled the end of their friendship. The referendum failed, but Baduel knew that Chavez wouldn't give up.
Over the past few months, the president has used new laws and decrees to gradually pave the way toward what he calls a "socialism for the 21st century." After winning a new referendum in February, he can now be re-elected indefinitely. Following that victory, he has nationalized industrial concerns and banks, expropriated coffee plantations and estates, and threatened opposition politicians and journalists. "We are on the road toward totalitarianism with a legal facade," says Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla who is now a prominent member of the opposition.
The national assembly meekly accepts the president's stunts, which is not surprising since 90 percent of its members are Chavez supporters. The opposition has weakened itself as a result of boycotting the last parliamentary elections in 2005. Now it can only look on as Chavez consolidates his hold on power. "The boycott was an unforgivable mistake," admits Pablo Perez, 40, the governor of the important state of Zulia.
Perez is a member of a new generation of opposition politicians who entered the government following regional elections last November. They hold a number of important governorships and control the city government of Caracas.
They partly owe their success to frustrated Chavez supporters. Many functionaries of the current regime are just as corrupt as the ruling class under Chavez's predecessor. The beneficiaries of the regime have been dubbed the "Boliburguesia" (the word is a pun on Bolivarian and the Spanish word for bourgeoisie) as a result of their expensive tastes. They have a penchant for drinking 18-year-old whisky, drive flashy American SUVs, and have purchased properties and houses at prime locations. This has prompted many Chavez supporters -- people who used to blindly follow the president's recommendations -- to stay at home on election day or vote for dissidents.
The rich oil-producing state of Zulia, with its capital Maracaibo, has always been a stronghold for the opposition. Out on Lake Maracaibo -- a huge lagoon connected to the open sea -- 12,000 oil wells pump a steady stream of black gold that has transformed Venezuela into the Saudi Arabia of Latin America. Tankers set sail for the US every day; Chavez's archenemy is also his best customer.
"Our oil reserves will last for at least 120 years," says Erwin Lingg, president of the Zulia branch of the Venezuelan Oil Chamber. But the petrodollars are primarily flowing into the coffers of the central government. "Chavez retains the share of revenues that we are entitled to," says Governor Perez.
The state oil company PDVSA has a monopoly on the extraction and marketing of the country's oil. The company was once considered a model enterprise. But Chavez has bled the company dry to fund expensive social programs, and burdened it with additional responsibilities. Today, PDVSA sells subsidized food, and pays for literacy courses and political campaigns. Even experts find it hard to keep an overview of the company's activities. "PDVSA has become a general store," says Lingg. "Our engineers are selling bread and cheese."
Seven years ago, the oil company's workers went on strike. Chavez saw the revolt as an "attempted coup," and fired 18,000 of the PDVSA's 40,000 employees. Thousands of skilled workers relocated abroad, with the highly trained petroleum engineers quickly finding new jobs in the Middle East, Canada and Russia.
In reality, the state company urgently needs money for investments. But Chavez continues to exploit it to fuel his revolution. In May he ordered the nationalization of all contract companies that had previously worked for PDVSA. Virtually overnight the monopolist swallowed up over 70 companies, which were primarily responsible for transport to the oil rigs.
Robbery, not Expropriation
The De-Ko company on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo is one of the victims. An expropriation unit wearing red uniforms stormed the premises at five o'clock in the morning. The owners were escorted away by armed soldiers. "This company now belongs to PDVSA," the leader of the group announced to CEO Jose Contreras. He didn't even have time to retrieve his belongings from his office.
The new bosses painted the facade red and pasted a huge portrait of the caudillo over the company logo. Underneath the president's likeness it read: "Chavez has reconquered our breakwater." The soldiers seized seven transport boats, two tugboats, cranes and production halls worth several million dollars. The government has not paid out any compensation to date. "That was no expropriation. It was a robbery," says Contreras.
In addition, the government is trying to strip all power from the independent oil worker trade unions and force them into a single trade union that is dependent on the state. "The government talks as if it were worker-friendly, but we're left with no say whatsoever," says trade union leader Carlos Contreras, who is actually a Chavez supporter. By pursuing such policies, the president is splitting his own political base.
Dividing Up the Slums
There is no better place to sound out the mood in the country than the 23 de Enero slum on the edge of downtown Caracas. The government's thugs live here in ramshackle brick buildings and dilapidated high-rises from the 1950s that stick to the green hills like huge honeycombs. They beat up unwelcome journalists and opponents of the government. No taxi driver dares to enter the slum.
Chavez has election offices in 23 de Enero and most residents are "Chavistas," as the president's supporters are known. "Under our former government there was a curfew here, and the police murdered and tortured people," says Glen Martinez, 39, who is the director of Radio 23, the local community radio station. "Chavez was the first to see us as citizens."
Radio 23 is one of dozens of "colectivos." This is the name taken by political groups, but also criminal gangs, that have divided up the slums among themselves. There was a time when Martinez wouldn't dare set foot outside without a revolver. "I had a lot of enemies," he says. "But we've brought peace to this area. Now there's a cease-fire."
He gives airtime at Radio 23 to local women's associations, and he provides tips on sexual education and informs listeners of political rallies. A portrait of Che Guevara hangs in the studio, and English-language songs are frowned upon.
Behind the dilapidated building lies rusting old transmitting equipment that was donated by the military. "Chavez pledged to renovate our building," says Martinez. That was two years ago, but they haven't heard from the president since then. Martinez's girlfriend Lisbeth Gonzalez, who has established citizens' councils in the slum and is supposed to consolidate the local political basis on behalf of Chavez, is also frustrated. "There has never been a real revolution here," she says.
'You Can't Intimidate Me'
"The man is getting afraid of his own people," says Chavez's former comrade Baduel.
Baduel shares his prison cell with an admiral and a National Guard general. They were arrested a year ago because they allegedly intended to assassinate the president. The three prisoners play volleyball together to stay in shape.
Baduel recently sent a letter to his former friend in which he wrote: "As the president, you have overpowered the institutions of this country and discredited the military, but you can't intimidate me."
He doesn't expect an answer and he has no illusions about what the future holds for him. "I'll be freed on the day when Chavez steps down, and not a day earlier."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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