Venezuela’s charismatic and controversial President Hugo Chavez missed his scheduled inauguration as he battles cancer in a Cuban hospital. But Chavez’s political impact on the oil-rich country may outlive him as his socialist movement remains popular, one of his backers told Dennis J. Bernstein.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
Eva Golinger is a Venezuelan-American attorney, journalist and former adviser to the Venezuelan Government. She is also the author of several books on Venezuela’s relationship with the United States, including The ChÃ¡vez Code (2006), based on Freedom of Information Act documents that show links between U.S. government agencies and Venezuelan organizations trying to overthrow Chavez.
Golinger has worked closely with Chavez and traveled abroad with the recently reelected socialist president. She knows the inner working of the Chavez government like the back of her hand.
She remains a steadfast supporter of Chavez, but is a realist about his chances for returning as he battles cancer at a hospital in Havana, Cuba. She also knows a great deal about Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who is Chavez’s hand-picked choice to follow him, in the event that Chavez doesn’t return to take the reins of power in oil-rich Venezuela.
In the following interview, Golinger talked about Chavez’s health, the politicking going on behind the scenes, even as Chavez clings to life, and a good deal about the next man, who may soon assume the reins of power.
Dennis Bernstein: Could you begin by giving us an update on President Chavez’s medical situation? What is it that is preventing Hugo Chavez from taking the oath of office?
EG: Well, President Chavez has been suffering from cancer in the pelvic region since June 2011, when it was first detected. He’s undergone surgeries already for the cancer to remove tumors and to deal with some of the complications. The last one was in early December. And he has since then had several complications, it was a very serious surgery that lasted over six hours.
He was already in a compromised state because he’d undergone extensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment throughout the past year, as well as involving himself in a very intense presidential campaign, from about July 2012 through October, when he won the election, on October 7th.
So his immune system was pretty beat, his body was pretty worn. And he went into this surgery knowing that, which is why he held a televised broadcast to announce that he was going to have this surgery. In this televised broadcast, he had his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, by his side as well as the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.
For the first time ever, Chavez named Nicolas Maduro as his political successor. And said if he were not to make it through the surgery and be able to be sworn in for his new mandate in January, as well as continue on as President, in that case there would have to be new presidential elections. And he specifically said that his candidate is Nicolas Maduro, and he hoped that the Venezuelan people would vote for him.
So that, for many of us who know Chavez very well, is a clear sign that he’s not doing very well. And that he knew going into this surgery that there was a very high probability of the fact that he would not recover from it in any way that would enable him to be able to continue on as President of Venezuela.
But, there appears to be a lot of hope still that he will pull through and come out of it. We have to remember Chavez is only 58 and he’s very pro-active. He’s a very strong person. He’s overcome tremendous obstacles before. He was healthy before he was diagnosed with cancer, and began all these treatments.
So he’s in a different state, I mean, despite being compromised because of the chemotherapy and radiation treatment, besides that he was a healthy person. And so he’s young, I mean his organs are young. There’s still a very likely chance that he could recover. But at the same time there’s a chance that he could not.
So that’s the situation with President Chavez’s health. As it stands, he delegated much of his responsibilities to the vice president before he went into the surgery by law. His absence was not declared officially as being like absent from the presidency so that the vice president would be sworn in. He was granted an authorized leave from the country in order to undergo this treatment.
DB: Could you talk a little bit about the situation on the ground, what the role of the opposition is now. They are not quite sanguine with the decision to postpone the inauguration and there seems to be a lot of politics going on, on the ground. I assume that from the crowds in front of the palace in Venezuela, that Chavez is as popular as ever. How would you explain that situation now? The political situation.
EG: Okay, there is no question that Chavez is as popular as ever. And millions of people who voted for him, voted for him knowing that he had cancer. And they want him to continue as president and there’s a lot of hope in that. And I think that hope and faith in the fact that he can continue on as president, that people want him to be president, is what has brought millions into the streets [on the scheduled inauguration day], to celebrate Chavez, and to celebrate the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Now the Venezuelan constitution has a clause, in article 231, which is the article about the presidential inauguration that specifies a date, it says it should be January 10th of the first year of the new term. But it specifically says that in the event of a supervening circumstance, or an unforeseen circumstance that inauguration could take place before the supreme court. And a date is not specified.
So what went on was that Chavez’s cabinet and the vice president requested that the national assembly, Venezuelan’s parliament take into account that article and delay the inauguration until Chavez is able to come and be sworn in. And so that was then taken before the supreme court to decide whether it’s constitutional at this stage of events.
And the supreme court rendered a decision [on Jan. 9] saying that, yes, Chavez’s inauguration can be delayed under article 231. And as of right now, he has not been declared absent from the country so no one else can be sworn in as president, even temporarily.
The opposition, on the other hand, is saying, no, they’re rejecting that, they are saying “absolutely not. The constitution is not open to interpretation. He must be sworn in. In any event he’s absent from the country. So either the vice president had to take over or”… in this case, since it’s a new term starting, they are saying “it should be the president of the National Assembly” … who is a Chavez supporter, the issue is not that.
But it’s an attempt, one, to again, force Chavez from power under these sort of quasi constitutional means, and two, to try to create divisions amongst Chavismo. So a group of opposition legislators rejected the supreme court’s decision. And this type of thing happens only in Venezuela, the opposition have rejected and disobeyed the supreme court’s decision.
So now they are in complete disobedience of the law in the country. And they’ve called for a mass march to take place on January 23rd which is a historical date because it’s a date in 1958 that the dictatorship was overthrown, and so they are trying to say that what’s happening right now in the country is that a dictatorship is taking over.
They are calling for all kinds of unrest and instability to take place in the country to protest this. They are saying that there’s a power void/vacuum, no one’s in charge right now, there’s no government, no president. But, that’s not according to law, that’s not according to the supreme court’s decision which is the law, the supreme law of the land, and what the constitution says.
I think it’s important to add, I mean, it could seem like a strange situation for people outside of Venezuela, why would they not proceed as if Chavez were absent? Obviously he’s been absent for more than a month. No one has heard from him. He’s not capable, at this time, of communicating and that’s a clear reason many could see for him to be declared absent.
I think part of it is prayer and a hope that people have that he will recover, also if a decision were to be made to declare him absent, and then permanently absent, and the vice president were sworn in, or the president of the national assembly, new elections would have to be called. It would be an irreversible decision. So, I mean, Chavez is not at a stage, as of yet, that is irreversible.
I think that people, his supporters, his government, his party members are holding on to that issue, that he’s not in an irreversible state. That we cannot oust him from the presidency as of yet. You know that, it may happen, unfortunately, it might happen, but it may not.
And because of that unpredictability I think that his supporters are unwilling to take that leap and say that, you know, … people voted for him just a few months ago. It’s been mandated, the will of the people of Venezuela. Fifty-five percent of voters, over 8 million people and so, you know, those who, right now, have to make decisions have said we are not going to override the decision of the people.
The opposition are calling for them to do just that. And, you know, many see this as, and I would say, it’s another attempt of the many and multiple, numerous attempts that they’ve made over these years since Chavez was first elected in 1998 to try to undermine and overthrow his presidency.
Now it’s a different situation obviously, because he’s not present physically at this time. But I think that what’s important is that we let the law play itself out here. That we can’t … they can’t act rashly because those decisions are going to have permanent impact on the country and on how things proceed.
Imagine if they did something like that and declared him absent, a new president was sworn in, new elections were held, and then he recovers. He was legitimately elected, so then what happens? I mean, so these are things that they can’t just act rashly on. And Chavez is in a situation, where he could go either way with his health. So they have to ride it out. In the meantime, there’s continuity of his government. And so that’s what’s important, that things continue to function.
DB: Can we just talk a little bit about where his work is now? Say a little bit about what his impact has been and the work that still lies ahead?
EG: Hugo Chavez has, without a doubt, been one of the most important presidents that Venezuela has ever had throughout its history. He’s brought the country back to what many consider to be a state of true independence, or maybe for the first time, and sovereignty. The natural resources of the country, the strategic resources … remember Venezuela has the largest oil reserves of any country on our planet, which is a huge issue regarding why there is so much interest in the country, and what that country represents to powerful interests around the world.
And what Chavez has done is utilize those strategic resources to invest in the people of the country, the development of the nation and its potential for progress. So his government over the past 14 years, since he was first elected in ’98. … He was elected in ’98 and then they had a constitutional process to redraft a new constitution which was then ratified in ’99 so they had to have new elections.
He ran again in ’99 and was elected to begin a new term in 2000. So technically, we could say he has had three terms so far, and this is his fourth. But in reality this would be his third term, starting this year.
So throughout this time period his government, under his policies directly, has been able to reduce Venezuela’s extreme poverty in more than half, and poverty in general, and also more than 50 percent. Venezuela has a much higher standard of living today. It’s on all these polls that surveys that take place around the world about happiness, they do this thing about which are the world’s happiest countries, Venezuela always ranks in the top five, just within the past, like few years, five or six years.
And that’s due to the fact that the government is heavily invested, 60 percent of national budget in social programs, health care, education, job training, housing subsidies, food subsidies for market places, and in general looking out for the people. Creating new platforms for grass roots organizing and involvement in direct participation in government. You know that overall agenda of the Chavez administration has been to transfer power into the hands of the people, so community organizations are key part of what his principal policies have been and that’s transformed the country.
From a country that was apathetic in the 1990s where people didn’t participate, everyone wanted to leave, nobody felt like there was any hope of anything happening in Venezuela, including myself, because I lived there then and left, but right before Chavez was elected, to become a country where there’s a vibrant democracy, where people are actively involved in their politics and in their local economies.
Where Venezuela is now ranking high, for example, in athletics around the world, sports. I mean something that never happened before, now Venezuelans are winning gold medals and they are participating in all these tournaments because the government has been investing in sports and recreation, things that enrich the lives of other Venezuelans and their culture. Recuperating their culture, their national identity, regaining a sense of dignity and pride, to be Venezuelan and to treasure the Venezuelans. It’s amazing, but that didn’t exist before in the country. And so Chavez has brought that back.
DB: And he did it in the context of the United States government doing everything in their power to try and get rid of him.
EG: Absolutely, from the beginning the U.S. was trying to undermine his government. Then a few years after he was first elected, as he began to implement his policies that he had promised in his campaigns…he actually followed through on his campaign promises, unlike politicians in the U.S.
DB: Can you imagine that?
EG: Right! And so that was a shocker, I mean really, I think a lot of people didn’t think that was going to happen. So as he began to redistribute the oil resources, and make all these social investments, and start creating all these programs, and start taxing oil companies, multinationals, that even were supposed be taxed before under previous governments, they just never paid, and there was all this corruption and commissions.
He began to implement these taxes and, of course, that brought more profit to the country but, of course, it affected powerful interests. There was a U.S.-backed coup against Chavez in 2002 that briefly succeeded, for 48 hours. Then in that extraordinary uprising of the people he was brought back to power. It was completely historical and we will never forget.
And that showed also the importance of Chavez himself, as a president, and of what he was, what he signifies, what the Bolivarian Revolution means to the majority of Venezuelans. Since then the U.S. has heavily funded, spent millions of dollars backing the opposition, and helping build up their political parties, and their coalitions, and their NGOs. And that still goes on today. And then the media, what we’ve seen in terms of, like a media warfare, a constant badgering of misinformation about Venezuela, even today what we’re seeing is in most media they are talking about a crisis in Venezuela, but in Venezuela the people are celebrating, the majority of people are celebrating.
They are out in the streets, celebrating the fact that there is a continuation of the political process that they feel very much a part of. And then we’re seeing a lot of the mass media investing time and energy into all this morbid type of language and discourse about Chavez himself. And talking about his mortality, his death, details that really, have no place in mass media, I have to say.
He is the President of the country, he is a public figure, but there is still a level of privacy that exists, as a human being, and why anyway, do people need to know so many details? I mean, it’s what has become of, I think, our society, is with all this reality television and things like that where you have people feel like they want to know every detail of everyone’s intimate life. And that’s just not the case. The Chavez administration has held true to their respect for his intimacy and his privacy, in that sense.
But, you know, this type of manipulation was also coming out of the U.S., the mass media, the U.S. government spokespeople, and allies, and mass media has been in an effort to try to emphasize some type of division within Chavismo, within Chavez’s supporters. A division that’s not true, that’s not been apparent. But they’ve been going at it, over and over again, now for months really, saying that Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, is at odds with the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. Both want power, both want to be president, once Chavez is out of the picture, the whole thing is just going to fall apart. Pit one against the other, in order to just divide and destroy it all.
DB: Let me jump in here now, Eva Golinger, and talk a little bit about that not in terms of prying about his health. But in the event that he cannot return to power, will the revolution that he started, will it continue? Will either of these men, who he’s appointed or one of them who he has said is directly would be his predecessor, the Vice President? Will this person be strong enough to carry on the work that he did, in the face of all the resistance that he got and all the attacks that came from abroad?
EG: Well, I’m not a fortune teller to say whether or not, it will, or will not. What I can say is, from the years of experience of being entrenched in the Bolivarian Revolution, and at the side of President Chavez, and participating in it. And being an active observer and participant is that, Venezuela has changed forever. There’s no way that it’s going back to how it was before. It may be different but I think that that would just be a natural process of evolution within the revolution. Things always have to be transforming and changing.
DB: So that the structural changes that have been made can be continued, that there is a structure in place for the work that he’s done, to continue.
EG: Absolutely. There was still a ton of work left to be done, if not an endless amount, because there’s always new things coming up, so for example, the concept of power in the hands of the people is a very idealistic concept, and it’s not something, or even Utopian, it’s not something that’s been fully achieved yet. It’s begun, to put it one way.
They have been focusing on the creation of, as they are calling them, the Comunas, communes, a regional type of local grassroots governments where you can connect with others in terms of local governance. The communes are run by actually the communities that live there, and that there’s no middlemen, no bureaucrats, no elected officials necessarily representing them but rather people are making the decisions.
So, things like that have begun but they haven’t fully developed. And, will they? I don’t know. They are in a process of doing that, at least things have transformed so they’re different than they were before. And, I would say, in a positive way.
Nicolas Maduro, the named political successor of Chavez is someone who has an immense capacity. He’s not going to be Chavez, no one’s ever going to be Chavez. I don’t think anyone should even expect that. That would be ridiculous. Chavez has also been an incredible leader, [he] unified all these different sectors, he’s a magnetic personality and an enormous amount of charisma. Nicolas doesn’t have that, but he has other characteristics.
He was a grassroots organizer, he’s very humble. He came from the working class, he drove a bus, he’s someone who identifies directly with the majority of the people in the country, and he speaks the same language, but Chavez did too. But Chavez had sort of an all encompassing persona, whereas Nicolas doesn’t. He’s more like a regular guy, and so that could work to his advantage.
He’s someone who’s learned at the side of Chavez now for 20 years. He was with him from the beginning of his movement. So, he has a great political and diplomatic capacity. He’s been the Foreign Minister since 2006, he’s someone who can mediate and deal with all kinds of people, all around the world. He’s been in all kinds of situations. He doesn’t turn his back on anyone. He has a very pleasant personality.
So do I think that he could continue on, and be a good president of Venezuela? I do. I do think that. And that I do think that he would receive the backing of most of Chavez’s supporters, because Chavez explicitly said “This is my guy.” And I think people trust that. And so, that will continue.
Does that mean that he would be could be a re-elected president after a first term? I’m not sure. It would depend on how things continue. But, I do think that there’s an issue of Chavez, the leader. Everyone was always asking before Chavez got sick, ”What would happen if Chavez is out of the picture? Will this continue?”
And I think now, that we’re living that moment, at least temporarily, maybe permanently, that what’s being shown is that there is a collective leadership that has grown, and that has developed under Chavez’s leadership and that that’s what’s now coming to fruition. In the end, that was the overall goal. Not that one person would always be above it all, and directing, but that what was being directed would eventually take over everything. And people would be directing themselves.
I think it will continue, it may be a little different than before, obviously we won’t have the emblematic figure of Chavez and his very entertaining discourse, and always unpredictable actions that have really impacted Latin American politics now for more than a decade.
But I think Venezuela will continue to be a major player, and it’s inevitable, because it’s a country with the largest oil reserves in the world. There’s always going to be some interest. Before, it was a puppet of the United States. I don’t think it will ever be that again.
Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.