Gregory Wilpert: Chavez defender

A prominent American Chavista explains why he admires a strongman allied with Ahmadinejad, Mugabe and Gadhafi.

chavez embraces ahmadinejad

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: scoundrel or saint? (Photo by Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)


In the U.S., Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is known as an anti-democratic firebrand who rails against the evils of capitalism and U.S. ‘imperialistic’ designs on Latin America. Never shy of speaking his mind, he has called George W. Bush “the devil,” “a donkey” and a “pubic hair.” He has nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry, and has set up a program to provide winter heating oil to low-income Americans — as if to suggest that the U.S. is an underdeveloped country.


Domestically, he presides over a government that has become increasingly authoritarian and mired in corruption. He has been accused of gagging the opposition media and rival politicians, and of using state funds to promote his political party during elections. This year a series of new Chavez-backed laws have sparked street protests. Critics fear that schools will indoctrinate children with his socialist philosophies under a new education law, while a new electoral law has tilted the playing field in his favor by redrawing electoral boundaries.


Yet Chavez has no shortage of sympathizers, so-called ‘Chavistas’, who view him as a crusader for the poor and for social justice. There is some foundation to their views: After surviving an attempted coup in 2002, Chavez launched probably his most successful initiative — the Bolivarian missions. These social projects included free healthcare clinics in Venezuela’s poorest neighborhoods, free literacy classes and subsidized food markets — projects that have made him wildly popular at home and lauded abroad in certain circles.


Perhaps the most prominent Chavista is Gregory Wilpert, editor of, an English-language news website, and author of “Changing Venezuela By Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government.” Wilpert, is a German-American sociologist and a former U.S. Fulbright scholar studying development in Caracas. He currently teaches political science at Brooklyn College’s Graduate Center for Worker Education in New York.


Global Post spoke to him about Chavez’s ten years in power and his prospects for the future.


Passport: As Hugo Chavez’s ideas have evolved over the years would you say they have become more radical?


Gregory Wilpert: He certainly became radicalized during the crisis years of 2002 [the attempted coup] and 2004 [when a strike by workers from the national oil company PDVSA attempted to bring him down by crippling the country’s economy]. Since 2005, there have certainly been shifts forwards and backwards in terms of radicalization but nothing as significant as what happened in between 2002 and 2004.


Passport: What has been Chavez’s government’s greatest achievement in the last ten years?


Wilpert: The greatest would probably be the inclusion or attention to the country’s poor majority. There’s the inclusion in politics and the greater attention of social policies towards the poor majority.


Passport: What are the greatest challenges facing Chavez?


Wilpert: The greatest challenges are in the whole issue of crime and insecurity [murder rates in Venezuela have reached record levels in recent years] and also management problems. The water crisis and the electricity crisis are symptoms of a larger problem that Chavez has in terms of managing the state.


But also one that I write a lot about is the centrality of Chavez himself. The dependency of his movement on him as an individual is also a major challenge. I think the PSUV [the United Socialist Parties of Venezuela, formed by Chavez in 2006 to unite under one entity most of the leftwing parties that formed his governing coalition] is meant to overcome that but so far hasn’t. It hasn’t progressed too much in overcoming that dependency.


Passport: Would you say that’s a problem of his own making?


Wilpert: To some extent but to some extent it’s also a problem of Venezuelan civil society or Venezuelan political culture, which is very much oriented towards individual political leaders rather than political programs.


Passport: This year seems to have been all about law-making. There have been dozens of laws passed this year. Do you think the opposition has a point when its says that laws such as the education law, the reapplication of the media law and the electoral law are designed to consolidate Chavismo’s hold on power?


Wilpert: From what I’ve seen of the education law, of course it might contribute to that in the sense that the current education system advances a certain ideology of individualism and I think that the [new law] is meant to steer the population in terms of thinking of co-operation, solidarity and teamwork.


On a very general level it is advancing Chavez’s own hold on power but not on a specific level in terms of indoctrinating or anything like that. You have to look at these things one by one.


The electoral law I do think is a bit more problematic. Right now it is advancing Chavez’s hold on power but if a different group were to gain popularity then it strengthens whoever is most popular because of this whole thing of institutionalizing the voting principle of “morrachas” which is a complicated thing! It strengthens whatever party has a majority and that is a problem.


As for the use of the existing media law it really depends what’s going to happen with those frequencies. If they go towards those communities as they are saying — there are so many opposition-oriented radio stations, having community radio stations which probably would be more pro-Chavez, I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. It actually would contribute to creating more balance in the radio spectrum. Right now the opposition is pretty predominant in the printed press and the television are is actually reasonably balanced.


So, certainly these changes will help the government but I don’t think unreasonably so.


Passport: We’ve seen several demonstrations this year which have ended in violence, there’s a local NGO saying there have been 2200 protesters arrested in the last 10 years and the opposition claim that the use tear gas and police and the denial of permission to protest before the presidential palace are signs of an increasingly authoritarian streak in the government. Do you think they have a point?


Wilpert: In Venezuela before Chavez it has never really been possible to demonstrate all the way to the presidential palace so I don’t think that that’s anything unusual. In terms of a greater number of arrests I haven’t seen the statistics but I think that that is something that one would have to see if there’s been an increase in those numbers to say whether there is a crackdown or anything like that.


Of course, I also think it’s possible that the opposition is getting more desperate and therefore more and more protests might turn violent as a result with of course the natural result being more arrests.


If you compare the Chavez era to previous eras, the Chavez government has actually been quite tolerant in terms of protests, especially if you look at how many people have been killed in past administrations. The numbers used to be far higher. Now there’s hardly anybody. There was a brief period in which there were some deaths but they were usually attributed to the police.


I think it’s a very complicated figure and I don’t think you can based just on the number of people that have been arrested necessarily say there has been a crackdown. There’s still thousands of protests every year – and which end peacefully.


Passport: Why does Chavez ally himself with world leaders who have questionable human rights records such as Ahmadinejad of Iran, Gadhafi of Libya, Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Putin of Russia? Do you think that this damages the reputation he tries to cultivate abroad?


Wilpert: I definitely think it does and I think its’ probably not good for the people living in those countries. By relating in a very, very positive way towards these leaders he’s strengthening their legitimacy and thereby aiding their own repressive efforts in their own countries so I’m very critical of that.


I do think it’s legitimate for Chavez to have relations with countries that don’t have a perfect human rights record but I think he goes too far in that direction, to the extent of embracing Ahmadinejad so that it’s hurting people in both countries and its also hurting himself.


Passport: Do you think his generous policies abroad of, for example, lending money to Bolivia or Nicaragua, harms his popularity with his own electorate?


Wilpert: That is distinctively possible. People don’t quite understand the rationale. But I think many times the opposition exaggerates the amount of money that is being sent abroad because sometimes there are investment projects that could actually benefit Venezuela such as refineries where the refineries will use Venezuelan oil.


So nothing is above being exaggerated but still I think Venezuelans might see it critically but also because they don’t fully understand the rationale behind it.


Passport: We seem to be getting mixed messages from Chavez about Obama. What does Chavez really think of Obama and do you think relations have improved with the US since Obama came to power?


Wilpert: Chavez certainly seems to be hopeful or seemed to be for a while — more hopeful than other leftists around the world about Obama’s election. But in the meantime he has certainly been disappointed. That’s why he talks about the two sides of Obama — the speaking side and the actual doing side.


Relations I guess have improved based on the fact that they’ve exchanged ambassadors but other than that the policy of the United States towards Venezuela hasn’t changed much. But Chavez has certainly toned down his rhetoric towards the United States compared to when Bush was in office so in that sense it probably has improved.


Passport: But is it not true to say that Chavez needs the United States as an enemy?


Wilpert: No, I don’t think so. I know that the opposition in Venezuela and many other people say that but I totally disagree. I think that Chavez would be perfectly happy to have a president with whom he could have a good relationship. I don’t think Chavez thinks in those terms – that he needs to have an enemy.


Passport: How do you see the situation with Venezuela and Chavez playing out over the next 10 years?


Wilpert: It’s difficult to say. This next year will probably be decisive leading up to the National Assembly elections because if the government doesn’t manage to fix some of the basic problems we talked about at the beginning — the security problem, the electricity problem, water and other issues relating to managing the state — Chavez’s party could suffer tremendously in the National assembly elections in 2010.


If that happens then his project will be significantly derailed because contrary to what most people think Venezuela’s National Assembly has a considerable amount of power and could really stop Chavez implementing his programs.


Passport: But do you see anyone from the opposition emerging to mount a serious challenge in the 2012 presidential elections?


Wilpert: So far I don’t. Of course a lot can change by then. If, for example, Chavez were to lose his two-thirds majority in the National Assembly then there might be new leaders emerging out of that National Assembly by 2012.