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Where has Chávez taken Venezuela?

After 10 years as president, Hugo Chávez has polarized Venezuela, but inspired its poor.

By Staff writer / February 2, 2009

For life? President Chávez greeted supporters last week while campaigning for a Feb. 15 constitutional referendum to end term limits. If approved, he could be reelected indefinitely.

Miguel Alonso/Miraflores Press Office/ap

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Caracas, Venezuela

José Luis Ramirez dropped out of school at age 13 and spent most of his life doing odd jobs. The father of six had little time to think beyond how to make ends meet.

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But after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was elected and began a series of social programs called "missions," Mr. Ramirez's life changed. He joined a literacy program and later one on television training. Today, he's not only a TV producer, but trains others and sets up everything from street cleaning to fundraising dinners.

"I'm considered a community leader," says Ramirez, almost surprising himself.

Ramirez has come of age alongside the presidency of Mr. Chávez, and he is not alone. This week marks 10 years since Chávez was inaugurated. His decade in power has been a controversial one. To his harshest critics, he is squandering the nation's oil wealth, lavishing it on programs to boost his popularity and on allies abroad while crime and inflation remain rampant and unattended. To his supporters – and there are many – he's the first modern president to care about the poor and offer leadership in a region that has long been overshadowed by US foreign policy. Love him or hate him, many residents, analysts, and politicians say his most lasting legacy will be a sense of participation that has bloomed here – socially and politically – and that has been embraced on both ends of the political spectrum.

"In these 10 years, there is something that Hugo Chávez can take credit for, and that is the social question," says Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and leading Chávez critic. "The fight against poverty is now on the agenda of every sector."

A polarizing figure

When Chávez was elected in 1998, the national mood was one of exasperation: citizens, rich and poor, were sick of political leaders they considered corrupt and uncaring. But polarization, which has always been part of Venezuelan society, has only grown more intense under Chávez.

He dismisses his opponents as the "oligarchy," while his opposition gives him little credit, if any at all, for what he's done well.

Chávez's popularity has remained steady in the past decade, starting with massive support after a coup attempt in 2002. Later in 2006, he swept presidential elections.

His administration claims that today's Venezuela is democracy at work: they say of 14 various types of referenda and elections in 10 years, he or his party have won 12. But his critics claim it's all an attempt to consolidate power.

Venezuelans rose up in 2007 in protest against his decision not to renew a broadcasting license for a private television station critical of the government. Later that year, they claimed that a constitutional reform attempt, which included a measure to allow the indefinite reelection of heads of state, was another ploy.

In his 10 years in power, Chávez has also risen as the US's most uncensored critic: calling former President Bush everything from a donkey to the devil.

He has reached out to other US critics in an effort to create a "multipolar" world, sending subsidized oil and funding infrastructure projects across the region.

An actor on the world stage

Even his supporters have complained that as he presides over the world stage he is ignoring the day-to-day issues that affect most Venezuelans, like muggings and the price of milk.

Still, they say, he has done more for the poor than any president that many can remember.

Take El Valle, a hillside slum on the edge of Caracas, for example. Over the past few years it has bustled with social programs: Cuban doctors manning a health clinic, soup kitchens providing stew for the neediest residents, supermarkets with rice at subsidized prices. According to government figures, extreme poverty dropped from 16.9 to 7.9 percent between 2000 and 2007.