In Venezuela, the only subject anyone talks about is President Hugo Chavez. And in cafes, restaurants, bars, taxicabs, universities, newsrooms, churches, and on street corners, the only question remaining is: When will he go? Of course, there are those who say he'll never leave. But they're in the minority. Even his hard-core supporters seem to be preparing for the worst, feigning strength in the face of a wave of anti-Chavez sentiment that pours from the radio, television, and newspapers all day and night.
Not even the golpistas, those plotting to overthrow the left-leaning, beleaguered president, are very careful about hiding their identities anymore. I talked to one on a cellular phone my first day in the country. I thought army intelligence would be listening to our conversation, so I spoke to my contact with caution. We talked in generalities before deciding to meet that afternoon for a coffee. My golpista told me to go to his office. "But who should I ask for?" I inquired. He hesitated for a long time, then told me his name. So much for cloak and dagger, I thought.
At his office building, I humbly asked everyone from the guards to his colleagues scurrying down the hallways where he was before finding out that my presence was hardly a secret. "Are you the journalist?" one of his secretaries asked me when I finally found his office. "Sit down," she told me. "He'll be back in a minute."
After he arrived, the two of us sat in his sparsely furnished office chatting away. When I spoke too loudly about Chavez, he leaned forward. "No one here at work knows I'm anti-Chavez," he explained. According to my contact, the golpistas are headed up by an ex-general. They work in cells. My contact doesn't know all the people involved, but his network began as just a group of powerful businessmen, professionals, and ex-military officers who would meet for drinks. He called them a "group of consciousness." Idle talk soon turned to serious discussions of a coup. "Chavez is going to leave," he confidently assured me during our first meeting. "Or the army will take him out."
But the colorful and demagogic Chavez is not an easy target. Although his opponents say he's crazy--they liken him to Abdala Bucaram, the former Ecuadorian president who was ousted from office in 1997--Chavez is not losing his mind. He maintains powerful alliances in the military. And he's still got backing from large portions of the poor, who make up more than half of the twenty-four million inhabitants of Venezuela.
From the beginning, Chavez has fought for the so-called shoeless ones. As a disgruntled paratrooper, he led his own coup attempt on February 4, 1992. It failed, but his calls for reform resonated throughout Venezuelan society. "The objectives we set for ourselves have not been possible to achieve for now," he told a riveted and torn nation over the television that day. "But new possibilities will rise again, and the country will be able to move forward to a better future."
During the coup attempt, Chavez wisely cited 1989 riots that followed the IMF-imposed fiscal austerity measures as proof the ruling parties were no longer fit to govern. The Caracazo, as the uprisings are known, left at least 200 dead and the ruling parties scarred for life. The Democratic Action (DA) and Christian-Democratic (COPEI) parties had shared decision making duties since they'd engineered the removal of the country's last military dictator in 1958. The two parties squeezed the country's oil revenue and milked the poor for forty years, effectively fueling Chavez's rapid rise to power.
After being pardoned in 1994, Chavez formed his own party, the Fifth Republic Movement, which, along with its independent-party allies, dislodged the DA and COPEI in rapid fashion. By 1998, Chavez was president, elected with 56 percent of the vote; Chavez's "Bolivarian Movement" dominated Congress and had replaced regional politicians throughout the country. It was a "revolution," the new president declared. And he was right.
The next year, he and his allies changed the constitution and renamed the country after the eighteenth century independence leader Simon Bolivar. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela elected him president again in 2000. His six-year term is over in 2007, when he says he'll run for a second term. "Yes, I'll leave," he recently told a crowd of his followers as protests mounted against him. "I'll leave in 2013."
For the first two years, the charismatic ex-soldier had 80 percent approval ratings. What's more, he had the backing of important business sectors and tacit approval from the United States to give his "revolution" a try. He furthered his popularity by breaking tradition: running with his followers in marches, singing with them during rallies, and fielding their questions on a Sunday morning talk show aptly called Alo Presidente.
Chavez took advantage of this period to rein in inflation, a policy he guarded with his political life. He increased social spending on schools and hospitals. His followers claim a million delinquent kids have returned to the classroom, and the government has refurbished 60 percent of the health service facilities. Chavez launched a massive public works program, employing thousands to pave over forgotten pot-holed roads. Unemployment remained steady. Abroad, he stretched his hand out to the OPEC countries and convinced them to strictly follow production quotas so as to force oil prices higher. The strategy worked, and the Venezuelan...