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Hugo Chávez: President under siege

By John E.

20.08.05 | As anybody who has ever seen the TV programme "Aló, Presidente"* can confirm, Venezuelan president Chávez likes to give the impression of being a hands-on, folksy kind of guy. He takes calls from pre-screened viewers who tell him of their troubles, which he then personally promises to resolve. As there are about 25 million Venezuelans, of whom a significant number have problems, Chávez has his work cut out for him.

Let me rephrase that: he has bitten off way more than he can chew. As a single person, he obviously cannot solve all of the large and small problems facing the country. To make matters worse, he is inept at delegating, both in terms of trusting others enough to give them the responsibility to achieve certain goals, and in terms of selecting people to whom to delegate whatever jobs he has in mind (perhaps the former is a consequence of the latter).

The result of the first-mentioned weakness – a lack of trust in his ministers – is that they are hardly able to do their jobs (even if they were competent and willing to do so) because Chávez is prone to interfering at any time and in any way he sees fit. This is one of the main reasons why the entire cabinet sits through most of the "Aló, Presidente" shows – this is where they are most likely to hear early about the president's latest flashes of inspiration, and also the place where they can find out whether they have been fired or not. Talk about being on tenterhooks. One has the distinct impression that quite a number of ministers and high-ranking officials suffer from anxiety paralysis (the name Isaias Rodriguez, state prosecutor, springs to mind).

The result of Chávez's inability to select competent ministers is that numerous jobs get done badly or don't get done at all. Considering the complexity of running a country, the results are often epic – such as the recent sinkhole in Venezuela's most important east-west highway, which was caused by a lack of maintenance (incompetence of the Minister for Infrastructure, in other words) and took two weeks to repair, or the highway bridge between the airport and the city of Caracas that is threatening to collapse, or the chaotic and catastrophic land reform process that was initiated at the beginning of this year, or the lack of any investigation into government crimes and corruption, or the fact that the production of petroleum, the country's lifeblood, is in decline; the list goes on and on without end. No wonder that the "Aló, Presidente" shows are often the scene of right royal dressing-downs of ministers.

That the country is being managed ineptly is more than apparent. Curiously, though, many Chávez supporters don't blame the president. They believe, instead, that Chávez is surrounded by bad people who do not allow him to see the problems of the simple people. They believe that if only they could talk to Chávez and tell him of their plights, he would solve all their problems (which is a logical assumption, considering the impression he tries so hard to create in his weekly show). This observation goes some way to explaining how Chávez can retain some popularity even though his performance is widely rated as being poor: there is an attribution bias at work.

The result of the image Chávez has created for himself as being the saviour for Venezuela's poor has had the effect of attracting increasing numbers of impoverished people from all across the land to the presidential palace in Caracas, Miraflores (see the text below). There they camp in the surrounding streets and have placed the palace under siege, demanding to see their president. Their belief is that if only they could open his eyes and communicate with him directly instead of through underlings, their pleas would be heard and their problems solved. Apparently, though, the president is not too keen to see his subjects.

There can be no doubt that president Chávez is well aware of the situation outside his residence. So why does he not deign to fulfill his promise and save the tortured souls? This is the question people, and Chávez's supporters in particular, will inevitably begin asking themselves. And the answer they will find at some stage is: Chávez is not the saviour. He is neither omnipotent nor omnipresent nor all-knowing. He is a man with weaknesses and shortcomings who has failed the people who placed their trust in him. When this realisation spreads through the population, the days of the Chávez regime will be numbered. It won't be U.S. invasions that will lead to Chávez's downfall: it will be the physical hunger of the people, a hunger that the president multiplied and could not satisfy.

Between the lines (excerpt, translated from the Spanish) By Ibéyise Pacheco
El Nacional

The stories of the people in front of the gates of Miraflores are dramatic. Desperate Venezuelans are waiting for days, even weeks, trying to get to talk to Chávez. Those living in the surroundings of Miraflores are feathering their nests by charging people for using their bathrooms, or by renting mats by the hour. Giovanni Castillo, 39 years of age, came with his son, who is 13. He is the coordinator of the Rotagua cooperative and lives in the Cańo Caimán sector at the south of Maracaibo lake. He was taken to attend the TV programme "Aló, Presidente" that was staged at Santa Bárbara del Zulia on 9 September 2001.

"On that day, they gave us the title deed for some land. Since then we have become poorer and we have gone through hell. The president promised us technical assistance, housing, roads, drains, schools, a dispensary. And nothing. No-one from the government attends us. There was a court trial and nobody defends us. We started from the bottom and were infiltrated by some hitmen. They killed my brother.

The title deed was signed by Chávez and the president of the National Agricultural Institute (Instituto Agrario Nacional, IAN), Wilfredo Ramón Silva. Afterwards the IAN disappeared when it was transformed into the National Institute of Lands (Instituto Nacional de Tierras, INTI). Neither Adán Chávez nor the current Minister Albarrán (even though he attended us tonight because we became angry and broke the fence of the Nacional Guard) nor Leonel Ricaurte, who used to be a friend of ours, nor another man named Agustín Ride, who arrived saying "Guys, I solve everything for the president", nor afterwards Otaiza, who was worse because he moved the INTI to La Yaguara and converted the building into a fortress with barricades, getting in there is very difficult. No-one. Here we sleep on the sidewalk, even though they told us this area is dangerous. When they see the media, they attend us, but these are just bandaids. They won't let us see the president. They removed us from the entrances Prevention 1 and Prevention 2 and guide the presidential convoy to the other side so that Chávez doesn't see us and doesn't find out what is happening to us.

One of the staff from the Casa Militar threatened us with activating a force of 400 men to get us out of here. These officials of Chávez are acting just like the Adecos and Copeyanos [members of the old ruling parties]."


* "Aló, Presidente" is a weekly Sunday broadcast consisting of a rambling one-man show with president Chávez playing the lead, usually running between six and eight hours, that all TV stations nationwide are obliged to transmit live and simultaneously.

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