In a packed room in Cooper Hall, visiting scholars from La Universidad Central de Venezuela discussed the political crisis of Venezuela, the fifth largest oil exporter in the world.
In a lecture titled “Ni Un Paso Atras” or “Not Even a Step Back,” visiting scholars Omar Astorga and Ana Beatriz Martinez gave a vivid presentation on the delicate situation with which Venezuelans are currently dealing.
The two scholars addressed the events leading up to the legitimacy of Hugo Chavez, current president of Venezuela, as a leader and the various political scenarios that led to the present crisis.
“On Feb. 4, 1992, Chavez, then a lieutenant-colonel, led a coup into the presidential home that later failed. That was the beginning of Chavez’s presence in Venezuelan homes, as he transmitted a televised message to those few soldiers that in silence collaborated with him,” Astorga said.
Chavismo, a term used to describe a structure of radical ideas led by Chavez, constructed the reasoning on which the present Venezuelan crisis is justified.
In the seven years following Chavez’s failed coup, Venezuela suffered from hyperinflation, the bankruptcy of the financial sector, skyrocketing unemployment and corrupted leaders. These factors inspired the majority of the people to elect a self-proclaimed radical, Chavez.
In 1999, Chavez was elected president of Venezuela. He won with not only the support from the popular sector but from the middle class, corporations, labor unions, media and intellectuals.
“Chavez proclaimed the end of the previous political period and the birth of a new one. To many he represented the hope for change,” Astorga said. “He announced plans to help homeless children, improve the lives of indigenous people, eliminate corruption within the government and improve the poverty conditions in Venezuela by revamping housing, health and education.”
Astorga said the creation of a new constitution, which was supported by the majority of the social sectors, was an important event in the reorganization of the state. Furthermore, this new document recognized human rights, particularly for the indigenous.
The media, especially television, plays a decisive role in Chavez’s popularity. Every Sunday, Chavez transmits a state of the republic message that average four hours in length to the masses.
Astorga said Chavez had an accessible and popular image, that brought with it a promise for radical changes.
But many people started to doubt Chavez’s intentions in late 1999. It began with the Chavistas.
The Chavistas are Chavez’s supporters and/or members of Chavez’s new radical political party. They held a wide majority in the national assembly. With that power, Chavez and the Chavistas were able to designate people in high places, such as in the supreme court and the office of attorney general. Chavistas eventually held power in most public offices.
“Because of that, the principle of separation of powers was put in danger,” Astorga said. “People started to ask questions.”
Early in Chavez’s term, the price of a barrel of oil, Venezuela’s main export, went up 100 percent. Chavez used this revenue to implement social programs to help communities across Venezuela.
“With programs such as these, Chavez’s promises started to manifest with tangible actions and subsequently shown through the different media sources,” Astorga said.
Chavez began losing popularity as he continued to present his weekly-televised addresses promising change and failing to deliver.
The unemployment numbers skyrocketed and the economy did not improve.
Martinez said media sources began reporting on the number of children in the streets and the numbers of corporations going bankrupt.
The Venezuelan people continued to question Chavez, who, in return, answered with promises.
“The Bolivarian Circles, named after Simon Bolivar, were ‘social groups’ created by Chavez to control the people within the communities … These circles began to be associated with violence,” Martinez said.
“Unexpectedly, Chavez started giving his speeches a radical twist … He started talking about a revolution and openly suggested attacks on private property and mass media sources.”
Chavez began to see the media as the enemy, but still tried to use it in his favor.
Martinez said, on his weekly televised message, Chavez said that private property was not sacred to those who own it.
With declarations such as these, Chavez began to lose popularity in the private sector as well as within the working class.
The media amplified the fracture of the leader just as much as they had shown his rise to the top.
“The president now wants to kill the messenger,” Oscar Lucien, a famous Venezuelan moviemaker, said referring to Chavez’s criticism of the press coverage of his administration.
From January 2002, the opposition led marches all over the country. A monumental event occurred on April 11, when a national march of more than a million people descended on the capital city of Caracas.
Martinez said 19 people were massacred by Chavez’s sharp shooters as the march headed toward the presidential palace.
Chavez was forced to sign a letter of resignation, and a provisional president, Pedro Carmona, was sworn in.
Chavez came back to power the next day, and Carmona was removed.
The opposition has organized more than 60 marches. And more than 100 military officials have been cited with civil disobedience due to their open support to the opposition, Martinez said.
On Feb. 3, a two-month civic national strike involving all sectors of Venezuela, came to an end after massive financial losses for the nation.
Martinez said as of right now, Venezuela’s poverty level is up 16 percent since Chavez took power. She said those without food have increased five percent and the unemployment rate has increased from 11 percent to 16 percent, she said.
Both Astorga and Martinez mentioned that scholars, sociologists, as well as philosophers, who are direct witnesses to these events, might have a disadvantage when giving an objective vision. However, Astorga and Martinez mentioned their intent to give those present an impartial talk by citing the news media such as El Nacional, El Universal, and Globovision.