A Tale of Two Chávezes

For those who loved and reviled Venezuela's president in equal measure, El Comandante leaves behind two very different legacies.

CARACAS — Hundreds of thousands of citizens, and more than a score of world leaders, gathered Friday, March 8, in the Venezuelan capital to bid farewell to fallen President Hugo Chávez.

People openly wept as the president was eulogized, with many saying that Chávez would live forever in people's memories. Ana Rodriguez and Nora Albas say they will remember El Comandante as long as they live.

Their reasons, however, are quite different.

Albas, 32, is the wife of a farmer in the central state of Aragua. She's an admitted rojo rojito (reddest of the red), or a super-Chavista. Thanks to various government loans, Albas and her husband have been able to expand their small 6-acre farm, which is mostly planted in tomatoes and peppers.

The couple said that they have received various farm tools for free and have access to discounted fertilizers and seeds when they are available. Her consejo comunal, or government commune, also paved the lane leading to their farm. She admits that she doesn't understand that much about socialism, but says it is far superior to the capitalism that preceded it.

"Chávez has made a huge difference in our lives," said Albas, who looks younger than her age. "Thanks to El Comandante, we have much more now than we did before. Our children have more of a future. And now I have a voice in what happens."

Such optimism isn't shared by Rodriguez, a 30-year-old doctor in the central industrial city of Maracay. She claims that Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year bout with cancer, has destroyed the country, both politically and economically.

"My family owned a farm in Guárico [a central agricultural state] for years. We weren't rich but we had a comfortable life -- but we worked for it. Seven years ago, the government expropriated our farm," she said. "My father gave his life to it, and now he has nothing. They haven't given us any re-compensation at all. My father used to spend all of his time there. Now his day consists of sitting in front of the computer and playing hearts online."

Her one brother had to emigrate, thanks to Chávez's policies, Rodriguez said.

"He is a petroleum engineer, and when Chávez nationalized oil operations here, he lost his job at the U.S. company that employed him. He's bright and hardworking, but he couldn't work for Petróleos de Venezuela [PDVSA, the state oil company] because he signed the recall petition against Chávez in 2004. If you signed the petition, you're automatically blacklisted from all government jobs."

More than 2.7 million people signed the petition, or roughly 10 percent of the population. Many subsequently lost their jobs in the resulting witch hunt to root out Chávez's critics.

"I work in a state hospital and I love my work, but crime is horrible," said Rodriguez. "We've had gang members come into the emergency room, hoping to kill people they had shot and had been taken to us. I can't leave the hospital at night because we have so much crime. And people just assume I have money as I am a doctor."

The two women's stories hint at what may be El Comandante's ultimate gift to his country: extreme polarization. Before Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuelans were politically apathetic. That's no longer the case.

"Chávez's election shattered the institutional political arrangements by which Venezuela had been governed," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College. "He directed popular discontent into the electoral arena and recast the Venezuelan state as an advocate of those who felt excluded."

Their inclusion, however, has come at a cost, said other analysts.

"Chávez brought in the poor, who were formerly excluded, into the country's political process. There was a social/economic redistribution of wealth. The downside was the political polarization that occurred under him," said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group political-risk consultancy. "He excluded large parts of society, especially those who disagreed with him."

Albas had little to do with politics before Chávez was elected. Today, she is a member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela and goes door to door before elections, urging her neighbors to get out and vote.

She is active in her commune, and she and her husband have taken an active role in the village where they live. Since Chávez's death was announced, she has been playing Chavista music and old speeches of El Comandante at full blast so her neighbors can hear.

"Chávez gave us a better life, and we have to continue fighting to improve it," she said.

The government's social and economic programs -- embodied in Chávez's so-called missions -- have had a marked impact on Venezuela, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"Poverty has been reduced by half, and extreme poverty by two-thirds," Weisbrot said.

Government programs have concentrated on health, education, and food. Misión Barrio Adentro, for example, started thousands of clinics in low-income areas, often staffed by Cuban medical personnel. Misión Mercal created a chain of government stores that sell basic foodstuffs at a discount.

But even Albas admitted that Chávez's revolution has a long way to go.

Her village is plagued by constant power outages, and her husband often has to spend days trying to locate hard-to-find fertilizers, seeds, and insecticides -- all of which have skyrocketed in price.

"Crime is horrible," she confirmed, noting that in her village of 2,000 inhabitants there have been four murders in the last year and two kidnappings. "The police do nothing, and the value of a human life means nothing these days. Young people don't want to work for what they have. They prefer to steal it."

One of her daughters used to go to an elementary school, but it has been closed since September because of heavy rains that compromised its structural integrity. Classes are now being held in a private home that has no running water or electricity. Her other daughter had to transfer to another high school because of constant gunfire outside. The nearest government health clinic has no supplies, said Alba, and she doesn't trust the Cuban doctors who man a health center in a nearby village.

"We took our daughter to the government health center in an emergency, and they had nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of drugs," she said. "We had to go looking for the drug they prescribed from pharmacy to pharmacy at 6 a.m. It was horrible. And the drug was something commonly prescribed. They just had nothing."

Corruption is also a fact of life in her consejo comunal, where money is constantly being lost. But Albas never blames Chávez for the problems.

"Chávez was honest and cared for us," she said. "His people are another matter. Many of them only mouth support while stealing from the country."

Rodriguez and Albas at least agree about that.

"My boss at the state clinic claims to be a socialist, a revolutionary," said Rodriguez. "But I think his commitment to the revolution goes only as deep as his wearing a red Izod shirt to work. He has used his position to enrich himself. Our health center has little in supplies."

As food supplies have dwindled this winter, absenteeism among food company employees now runs at about 14 percent, according to officials at the country's Federation of Chambers of Commerce. Labor laws make it near impossible to fire workers, and many have taken advantage of the rulings to sit home and not show up to work.

"Every Sunday it's the same thing," said Rodriguez. "People come to the center asking me to write them excuses so they don't have to work on Monday."

Rodriguez often thinks that she should join her brother in seeking a life overseas, but she is reluctant to leave her parents, especially her father who is now overweight, suffering from high blood pressure and high blood sugar. He has stopped trying to get his farm back.

"It's producing very little now in any case," said Rodriguez. "The people who took it over are basically subsistence farmers. They killed most of the livestock, and they haven't planted much because they are supposedly waiting for government loans."

Rodriguez is bitter, she admits. She notes, acridly, that food supplies have dwindled thanks to the government's agricultural policies. Basic foodstuffs such as sugar, cornmeal, cooking oil, coffee, and chicken -- which were never in short supply -- are now difficult to find.

The government's foreign exchange policies, which include a fixed rate for the bolívar and limited access to hard currency, have resulted in shortages of many medicines as well. February's 32 percent devaluation has only made it worse.

"But still the poor support the government," she said, shaking her head. "Chávez is popular now because he bought support with his various programs and giveaways. But at what cost? Today, we have a country where no one wants to work, and the government has become the chief employer. If we didn't have oil, this would all come crashing down."

It's hard to argue that Venezuela's fiscal situation hasn't markedly worsened under Chávez.

The national debt, including that of state oil company PDVSA, which funds many government programs, has more than quadrupled to $140 billion in the last seven years, as Chávez and his government borrowed heavily to fund social spending, especially in election years. But few Venezuelans seem to care, especially as the country has the world's largest oil reserves. Meanwhile, Venezuela' s oil output has fallen 25 percent since Chávez took office.

Albas admitted that she is worried about the future.

"I support the revolution, but sometimes I just wonder if we're really ready, really prepared for self-government, for socialism," she said. "I just wonder."

AFP/Getty Images


Meet China’s New Foreign-Policy Team

Is Beijing using its latest appointments to send a message to Washington?

HONG KONG — As the United States pivots to Asia, lining up allies against China's rise, Beijing is pivoting right back, boosting its diplomatic offensive in the Asia Pacific by putting together a new foreign-policy team consisting of U.S. and regional specialists.

While the new appointments won't be formally announced by the National People's Congress, China's parliament, until mid-March, two senior party sources in Beijing have confirmed promotions for veteran diplomats Yang Jiechi, Wang Yi, and Cui Tiankai. Together, the appointments suggest that China wants to improve the optics of its relationship with the United States, if not the substance.

Yang, having run the Foreign Ministry for five years, will be promoted to State Councilor, one rung below vice premier. The 62-year-old fluent English speaker and former ambassador to the United States is expected to focus on big-picture strategies, including new thinking that will bolster China's influence in the key Asia-Pacific theater.

Day-to-day implementation of foreign policy will be in the hands of Foreign Minister-designate Wang Yi, 59, who spent his entire career at that ministry (except for the past five years, when he headed the ministerial-level Taiwan Affairs Office, tasked with managing the mainland's policy towards Taiwan). Wang, ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 as well as a former director of the Foreign Ministry's Asia department, will be the first-ever Asia hand to become foreign minister. Previous holders of the post have been either Russia or U.S. specialists.

Cui, 60, a U.S. expert whose current post is vice foreign minister in charge of North American affairs, will become China's ambassador to the United States. Cui also has ample Asia experience. He previously succeeded Wang as ambassador to Tokyo, a post he held from 2007 to 2009.

While all three foreign-policy professionals have a reputation for favoring negotiation over bluster, it is far from clear that their appointment signals a change in the aggressive turn Beijing's policy has taken toward sovereignty disputes in its neighborhood.

In China, major policies on diplomacy and national security are made not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads. Members of this top-level interdepartmental organ include representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the army, and the Ministry of State Security, as well as departments handling energy and foreign trade. But two Beijing sources close to the foreign-policy establishment say that Xi, who doubles as commander-in-chief of the military, has given the generals -- many of them fellow princelings, the offspring of party elders -- a bigger say in national-security issues than his predecessor Hu Jintao.

At least in terms of symbolism and atmospherics, however, the new diplomatic trio could take a more flexible approach to tackling the most worrying flashpoint in Asia: China and Japan's ferocious wrangling over the sovereignty of a group of islets called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

Given widespread perception within the party leadership that the intensification of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance -- which applies to the Senkakus -- is a centerpiece of Washington's pivot to Asia, the personnel changes in Beijing could also affect the style, if not the substance, of how the party will pursue relations with the United States.

Wang's return to the Foreign Ministry after five largely successful years as chief executor of Beijing's Taiwan policy is highly significant. A fluent Japanese speaker, Wang helped break the impasse in Sino-Japanese ties in 2001-2006, when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of Japan.

Koizumi infuriated the Chinese with provocative actions including annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors soldiers killed in World War II, including 14 war criminals. After Koizumi announced in June 2005 his plans to retire, Wang led the Chinese effort to mend fences by conducting secret talks with then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the favorite to succeed Koizumi.

This discreet diplomacy resulted in Abe's visiting Beijing in October 2006, less than two weeks after he succeeded Koizumi as prime minister (Abe, after a five year break, was re-elected prime minister in December 2012). The visit came despite the ideological affinity between Koizumi and Abe, both of whom favored a more assertive foreign policy as well as the revision of the Japanese Constitution, which would enable Japan to convert its self-defense forces into a regular army.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry characterized Abe's 2006 trip as "ice-breaking." Abe allegedly made a private pledge not to visit the shrine while in office, and Beijing offered to focus on economic cooperation, while temporarily setting aside ideological and historical issues, according to diplomatic sources in Tokyo and Beijing.

Wang has also successfully helped negotiate the rapprochement over the past few years between the party and its former arch-enemy, the Kuomintang, the ruling party of Taiwan. Known for his charm and finesse, Wang could complement Yang, who has the reputation of a cerebral strategist.

By promoting Yang to the post of state councilor in charge of diplomacy, the party leadership may also be sending the signal that it's contemplating a more nuanced posture toward Obama's pivot, which some in the party leadership interpret as a move to contain China. Yang has much more experience with the United States than the outgoing state councilor, Dai Bingguo, who spent most of his career on Russian and East European affairs. Yang cut his diplomatic teeth by serving as interpreter for former President George H.W. Bush, when the latter headed the United States' Beijing Liaison Office (the precursor to the U.S. Embassy) in the mid-1970s. Altogether Yang, a graduate of the London School of Economics, has served three tours in the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Yang enjoys cozy ties with American politicians and in particular, business leaders. He wants to devote more resources to lobbying American multinationals, according to sources close to the diplomatic establishment. These sources also say that Beijing hopes this will persuade the White House to put business before ideology in its China policy. And Cui, who attended Johns Hopkins University while serving in the Chinese delegation to the United Nations in the 1980s, could be a suitable candidate for pursing this new-look, "people-to-people" diplomacy with the United States.

It is important to note, however, that whatever changes in style and orientation the trio's appointment may portend do not necessarily signal a de-escalation of Beijing's increasingly ferocious saber rattling. The generals appear to overwhelmingly favor bellicosity -- they have enthusiastically echoed Xi's repeated calls over the past two months for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to "get ready to fight well and to win wars." Gen. Wei Fenghe, who is commander of China's missile forces, said in February that the PLA must "improve its war-fighting skills" and "it must fulfill the task of winning wars." And recent commentary in People's Liberation Army Daily, a military newspaper, argued that the Chinese military must rid itself of "peacetime inertia and other [bad] habits accumulated over a prolonged period of peace." Popular military commentator Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, who in April 2012 called for a limited war to "punish" the Philippines for allegedly occupying Chinese territories in the South China Sea, even suggested in a January 2013 interview with Chinese state media that China "must raise its guard against stealthy [military] attacks launched by other countries." Even as diplomats such as Fu Ying, the vice foreign minister in charge of Asia, have reiterated Beijing's commitment to "peaceful development" in global affairs, China has increased the frequency of its "patrol" of the Diaoyu-Senkakus by marine surveillance and other quasi-military vessels.

It is too early to say whether the promotion of diplomats with decades of experience in pursuing mutually beneficiary relations with Japan and the United States signals a fundamental change in the Xi administration's pugilistic stance on power projection in the Pacific. Yet at the very least, these personnel changes could indicate that top decision-making bodies are contemplating options other than relentlessly beating the drums of war.

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