Chavez Tightens Grip on Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has started his third presidential term — one that has him serving until 2013 — with a flurry of policy moves that have shaken his opponents and mesmerized his supporters.

Chavez wants the constitution reformed so he can run indefinitely. On Wednesday, the National Assemby is expected to give Chavez the power to push through new laws to accelerate what he calls "21st-century socialism."

The El Leon cafe in Caracas sits near the Spanish consulate in Venezuelan capital. Every morning, a long line forms outside — a line of Venezuelans scrambling to leave their country.

"I'm concerned about the destiny of the situation in Venezuela," says Paula Cadenas, who was in the line recently. "The obsession about taking this turn to the left — but to a very radical left side — I think it's tending to exclude the other that doesn't think as you do."

In a series of announcements in recent weeks, Chavez has promised to install a socialist state and redistribute Venezuela's oil-generated wealth.

It will be far from communism, which is what his critics claim he wants. But 21st-century socialism does mean nationalizing utilities. It means more state control of the oil sector. And the National Assembly is about to give the president the power to enact economic laws by decree for 18 months.

A shoe factory in Caracas' poor west end is an example of what Chavez wants. Here, 80 workers make one kind of shoe. It's black and nondescript. Thousands of pairs are exported to Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally.

This factory, run by state-organized cooperatives, is the new Venezuela. Gustavo Zuniga is among the "leaders." There is no manager.

"We went from being instruments of capitalism to being the owners of a company that produces goods for a community," Zuniga says. "We are conscious that this is the economy that can save the world."

In a highly polarized country, the changes are captivating to Paula Cadenas's cousin, Joanna Cadenas. She is a teacher at the state's Bolivarian University. She always dreamed of a government that would take care of its people.

Sitting in a noisy shopping mall, sipping a beer, she heralded the government's so-called missions: health, education and nutrition programs bankrolled by oil dollars.

Venezuela seems caught between two worlds. One is capitalist, where oil is king. But tugging the other way is Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

Chavez's larger-than-life persona permeates it all. His face is plastered on posters. His marathon speeches dominate the airwaves.

Chavez supporters, such as Ivan Camejo, love the persona. He sells Chavez dolls on the main plaza.

"It's a Chavez doll, a doll that talks," Camejo says. "It's cool. I'm selling a lot. I support him a lot."

Yet there are plenty of Venezuelans who believe too much power is being concentrated in one man's hands. Demetrio Boersner is a prominent leftist academic.

"He has gone ahead too fast and a lot of people are worried, not only in the Venezuelan opposition and Venezuelans at large — neutral Venezuelans — but also within his own political coalition," Boersner says.

Boersner points to Chavez's controversial dictate to fold all pro-Chavez political parties in the National Assembly into his newly created United Socialist Party.

With the president so strong, the opposition movement might seem broken. But some leaders remain optimistic. That's because there are battles on the horizon they say will mobilize people.

One involves schools.

Chavez has talked about injecting more of the government's Bolivarian ideology into schools. At a public school in Chacao, a decidedly anti-Chavez district of Caracas, the plans do not go down well.

Julio Borges, a prominent opposition leader, promises a fight.

"For me, it's very clear that Venezuelans support President Chavez," Borges says. "That doesn't mean that they want to give him power for ever and ever in the future."

For now, everyone agrees the revolution is moving forward — and fast.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.