CARACAS, Venezuela—To understand the enigma that is Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, you have to start up high—way up in the hills, in slum neighborhoods like El Paraiso. The view from this poor Caracas barrio helps explain the rise of the ebullient former paratrooper—a small stretch of shiny skyscrapers surrounded by a sea of shacks and shantytown developments, providing a geographic reflection of the Venezuela's brutal economic inequality.
At the very top of the hill stands a monument to the work of President Chávez—a government-run market that sells subsidized food to the poor. Down the road, government contractors are installing a pipeline to bring potable water to communities that frequently go for two weeks without having water delivered to their houses.
Standing in line to buy subsidized groceries, 28-year-old William Rivas, a municipal trash collector, says these projects are just two of the reasons he's an avid Chávez supporter. Though he admits that rampant crime and unemployment have only gotten worse during the president's five and a half years in government, he feels he's finally getting a fair shake after years of being ignored by successive governments.
"I can buy my groceries here for about half what it costs in a supermarket," he says, sitting on a wall outside the bright blue subsidized market built only months ago. The potable water project will soon save him from making four trips a day to carry 20-liter water containers up the steep hill from the nearest municipal tank.
"I'm with Chávez until death," he says, a weary smile coming across his face. "No other president has ever done so much for me."
Communities like El Paraiso form the backbone of support for Chávez, who now seems likely to win Sunday's recall referendum. Neighborhoods like this were forgotten for years by the corrupt two-party system of the pre-Chávez era known as the Fourth Republic, which squandered and pilfered the country's oil boom.
From the fall of a 10-year dictatorship in 1958 until Chávez's first election in 1998, the two parties excluded an entire sector of society from basic opportunities. Government jobs went to people with friends in the government, creating an increasingly mediocre cadre of state officials incapable of preventing the health care and education systems from crumbling and poverty from spiraling out of control.
With his anti-poverty platform dubbed the "Bolivarian Revolution," named after Venezuela's founding father Simón Bolívar, Chávez was elected in 1998 and again in 2000, promising nothing short of a revolution to end social inequality. His message appealed even to middle- and upper-class voters, despite its open invocation of revolutionary heroes like Che Guevara and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, personalities that generally make Venezuela's upper class squirm.
Chávez insists his critics are simply washed-up remnants of the old guard, upset that they're no longer able to pass out favors and government contracts to their friends, now stuck watching the erosion of their once-privileged social status. For him, the story ends here.
For me, it does not.
While the journey up to El Paraiso served to remind me of why so many people back Chávez, the trip down made me remember the abundant problems with his political project. Though so much anti-Chávez rhetoric is couched in hysterical red-baiting terms, his savvier critics are right to point out that he appears to be walking down the path of his predecessors, something that was made abundantly clear as we headed out of the slums and back toward my apartment in eastern Caracas.
I had visited El Paraiso with a group of municipal employees involved in social development projects around the city. On the way back, the guys' idle chatter quickly turned to politics.
"Chávez is the first president to launch a literacy program," said social worker Luis Zerpa, sitting across from me. "But we have to be careful to make sure it doesn't get infiltrated. Last week we had to fire a teacher because we found out he's not with the revolution. Can you believe that—an anti-chavista working in one of our programs?"
"You fired him?" I asked.
"Of course we fired him," he replied, casually. "We can't have counterrevolutionaries in the social projects. Do you know how much damage those people have done to this country?"
If "those people" meant the opposition, he had a point. Anti-Chávez forces launched a two-month strike in December 2002 that nearly shuttered the oil industry, costing the country $7 billion in lost revenue, not to mention a botched 48-hour coup that left as many as 40 people dead in April 2002.
I still wasn't sure why this meant it was OK to fire people for their political beliefs. Over the previous two months, the government had been accused of firing public employees for having signed petitions requesting a recall referendum on Chávez's rule, as established in the constitution. Numerous acquaintances told horror stories of being denied passports, jobs, and scholarships for having signed referendum petitions. Only a couple of months ago, I heard Health Minister Roger Capella tell the press that signing the referendum was "terrorism and conspiracy" and that any health ministry employee who signed would be summarily fired.
It didn't surprise me that a group of crotchety bureaucrats had overstepped their bounds in trying to defend the president, but I was alarmed to hear it from the mouths of social workers. This type of intolerance smacked of the Venezuela that Chávez promised to change.
Venezuela's state institutions rotted under the Fourth Republic because people were hired on the basis of their party affiliation rather than their qualifications. For years the country suffered from rampant corruption because governments intentionally blurred the lines between state resources and party funds. Though undeniably providing for the poor where the Fourth Republic failed, Chávez has taken heavy-handed Fourth Republic slash-and-burn politics to a new level. He has openly insulted judges that rule against him, and his party recently approved legislation overtly aimed at packing the country's highest court. His primary package of 49 social reform laws were passed by decree rather than negotiated in Congress.
The armed forces and the state oil company now openly profess their allegiance to Chávez—all the while insisting that this in no way makes them politicized.
It's hard to argue that Chávez is not helping the poor, but the evident institutional decay speaks less of a revolution and more of the sins of the father being visited upon the son.