Gregory Wilpert on Venezuela: 'Major challenges face Chavez in new term'

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October 9, 2012 -- Real News Network -- Gregory Wilpert, a German-American sociologist, earned a PhD in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications. He founded, an English-langugage website. In 2007, he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the US in 2008 because his wife was named consul general of Venezuela in New York. Since returning to the US he has been working as an adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

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Paul Jay, senior editor, Real News Network: On Sunday night, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was reelected. Now joining us from New York City to talk about his views on the election is Gregory Wilpert. Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.

Gregory Wilpert:  Thanks for inviting me.

So the polls had been showing Chávez ahead, and the polls more or less turned out to be correct. And he's now elected for a new term, a six-year term, I believe. Let's talk a little bit about what the challenges facing Hugo Chávez are. What do you think are the main things he needs to accomplish over this next period, and to some extent, why hasn't he already accomplished some of these things?

I think one of the main things that Chávez has to accomplish is to gain the trust of the youth. I'm not saying that he necessarily lost most of the youth; however, since he's been in office for 14 years, there's a significant proportion of the population, about 30 percent of the population, that basically grew up under his government and who have become frustrated with various problems and don't have the reference point that Chávez always talks about, which is the pre-Chávez era. And so these problems are problems such as crime and corruption and inefficiency in the public administration, but some of the main problems and issues that the youth have serious problems with, and they need to figure [incompr.] they want that addressed, obviously, in a way that gives them a brighter future, really, and for whom this comparison to the past just doesn't have much impact.

Right. And some of those youth were in the opposition. I mean, you see a lot of young people in these opposition protests. There were a fair number of university students that were in the opposition. I know a lot of them come from the sort of more elite classes, but not all, I mean, in the sense that some of them are the kids of professional families, and working families in Caracas, too. This—you know, Caracas is fairly divided. When Chávez went to Cuba for his medical treatment, one of the times he came back, he did a kind of a self-criticism where he said that some of his rhetoric against the opposition and against some of the middle-class opposition—he called them squalidos and things like this—he said that it was probably a mistake, he shouldn't have labeled everyone under the same category. Has he changed that language? And has he changed—do you think there's evidence he's changing his approach to those other sections of the population?

Well, he goes back and forth on that. Sometimes when he gets very frustrated with the opposition and becomes very strident, he falls back into this old language of insulting, basically, and of disqualifying the opposition. And then, afterwards, he apologizes and tries to—and for a while manages to tone down his verbal rhetoric against the opposition. And that's, of course, also something that turns off many voters, I think. And Chávez knows this, which is why he tries to back-, you know, step on that and improve it.

And the thing is that the people who—this youth that we're talking about who grew up under the Chávez government, they—actually, many of them benefited tremendously and were given social mobility through Chávez's policies. However, as they rise, so to speak, in the—you know, and as Venezuela becomes a less unequal country, their aspirations change and their willingness to identify with Chávez and with his rhetoric of rich versus poor doesn't have as much of an impact on this rising youth, really, that was enabled, really, thanks to Chávez's mostly educational policies and other social policies.

Now, we should put all this into context. We're kind of assuming everyone else has already followed the results of the election. But Chávez won this election by ten points, and there's a massive turnout in the celebrations and in the pro-Chávez rallies of young people. So, you know, clearly there's a—he has a big support amongst youth. But you're talking about who's in that 45 percent that voted the other way, or young people who may not even be old enough to vote yet but, you know, who have questions about why the pace of progress has not been more swift.

Yes. I mean, one of the things that I always find interesting when you look at polls that divide the voting preferences according to both age and according to social class, you see that Chávez has overwhelming support in the poorest sectors of the population, which make up about half of the population, which is—they're usually referred to as the classes E and D, which are the poorest. But where he has one of the weakest supports—obviously, as you go up it weakens. But the middle-class section, it really drops off quite dramatically, that as soon as, you know, people become slightly better off, their support for Chávez drops.

Well, just for the—let's define what you mean by middle class, 'cause the United States, they use middle class as a way to say working class, but for some reason they don't want to use the word working class. When you're saying middle class, what are you talking about?

Well, basically I'm talking about people who live, you know, on something like double what Venezuela's poverty level would be, which is still quite poor, because the poverty level is set very low. I mean, it's people who might still live in the barrios but have slightly better incomes, who are—you know, they might—you could call them working class, perhaps, but they have studied a little bit at a technical school or something like that. And, yeah, I don't know. It's very difficult to describe, really.

But the people that have a job that have, you know, in the Venezuelan context relatively decent pay—we're not talking about, you know, well-, high-paid professionals and we're not talking about the poor; we're talking about, you know, working-class people with working-class jobs that pay okay.


Right. And you're saying there his support falls off. But one would think he should have support there.

Exactly. But I think it's a very common phenomenon that this group of people that belong to that class aspire to something better and are much more willing to adopt the viewpoints and world view of the class that's, so to speak, just above them. And therefore their rejection of Chávez is even stronger, because they want to—they, you know, come from that poor background and, basically, want to leave it, and therefore reject everything that is associated with that background. And Chávez belongs to that.

Well, if Chávez wants this 21st-century socialism to last beyond him—and this is assuming his health stays good and he fulfils his whole six-year term. But one assumes he's hoping this is something that sets a course for Venezuela for decades, not just for another six years. He needs that youth and he needs that working-class youth and he needs to address some of these problems that have been lingering for what many people think too long, and I guess starting with crime is one of the most important. People are afraid simply to go out at night, and even to some extent in the day. And we've talked about this before in previous interviews. But what are some of the recent things he's been doing to try to solve this? And what is the direction these policies are going in?

Well, it's a policy that was started a couple of years ago already, but which is, of course, still very late in the Chávez presidency. But a couple of years ago they started implementing a new national police force to replace the municipal police forces, and the reasoning is pretty clear. I mean, the municipal police forces were completely and hopelessly corrupt, and the local mayors had no way of combating them or replacing them or improving them. And so the national government really had to step in there.

And now there's a transition phase, and they're being instituted or being introduced in the municipalities, and very gradually, bit by bit. And the transition process from the municipal to the national police is extremely slow, and it's going to take several more years, actually, for it to be fully implemented. And in the meantime, you also have various transition problems, where there's more uncertainty precisely because of the transition, although once they're in place, actually, crime has dropped in those municipalities quite dramatically—I mean, well, crime is still pretty high, but by 20 percent, more or less, on average, which is a pretty significant bit. But a lot more remains to be done in that area.

Right. Now, I've—when I was in Venezuela, I heard some people suggest to me that one of the reasons crime isn't more cracked down on is that a lot of it's being organized out of the barrios, the poor areas. And this is also the base of Chávez electoral support. And there's some reluctance to go after some of the kind of more organized crime there, because it may affect the outcome of elections. Do you think there's anything to that?

I'm not sure, because the problem is, of course, obviously, the high crime rate is affecting Chávez just as much, or probably a lot more, I think, than—and especially since, you know, the—even though he might count on the support from some of the people who are connected to crime, I really think that's exaggerated, and it's not that significant.

Yeah. Certainly the people that suffer most from the crime are actually people in the barrios.

Yeah, and they're much more; the people who suffer from crime, the number of victims, basically, are far more larger than the people who perpetrate it.

Right. So, I mean, people do ask this question, then: there's been enough money, there's been enough resources; why does it take so long to face up to this or deal with it?

Well, like I said, it's a very difficult problem which takes a long time to just deal with in general. Any country in the world, it would take a long time. The big problem, really, was that Chávez recognized the problem very late, that is, you know, not until almost ten years into his presidency. And the reason for that is simply because there was an assumption that once you lower the crime, once you decrease inequality, crime will resolve by itself. And that just didn't happen. And so it was a massive miscalculation, I think, on the part of the government.

Right, that if you deal with the social conditions, you don't need to deal with the policing in the same way. So what—so, after crime, in terms of this youth, this working-class, urban youth that are quite divided about Chávez, what else does he have to do to kind of win them over or solve—what's the next problem they want solved?

Well, I think it's also the quality of the education. I mean, they—people are very grateful, I think, that many new educational programs have introduced and given tremendous amounts of opportunity to them. But they've been introduced very quickly and with relatively little funding, although, I mean, obviously, a lot of money has been spent on it. But professors and teachers still don't get paid very much in Venezuela. And so the quality of the education is actually—it's increasingly recognized that that is an issue, and I think that's an issue for this segment of the population.

And the other issue I heard when I was there was that there was a lot of support in the barrios for some of the on-site—Cuban, often, Cuban doctors that were doing, like, what GPs do. But there's a lot of critique about the hospitals themselves, that once you get past that kind of GP-level care that was created in these new medical centers, that the hospitals didn't live up to what people's expectations were.

Yeah, that was, I think, a major issue, actually, a couple of years ago. In the meantime, many—almost all of the hospitals, actually, have been thoroughly renovated. I mean, there are still places that haven't been dealt with that still need to be fixed up, but I think a lot of investment has been made in that area. So that's not such a big issue anymore.

So who else is in that 45 percent that voted against Chávez? And we know the more—the really rich and elite sections on the whole were anti-Chávez, but that they don't make up the rest of that 45 percent that voted against him.

No. I think there's also a segment of the people living in barrios who aren't young and who used to be Chávez supporters. A matter of fact: there was a serious of articles that I think dealt with the problem very badly, that is, in The New York Times and in The Los Angeles Times. But it is an issue, in the sense that there are people who used to support Chávez who aren't young but live in the Barrios, and basically they've become disenchanted for a variety of reasons. And I think one of the main reasons is to see the persistence of corruption and clientalism in many of the social programs that do exist, and the inefficiencies. For example, Venezuela's constantly struggled with a housing problem and building public housing, but oftentimes that gets all mired in local corruption and so on. And so that's one of the things that also has turned some people off.

I mean, that's really his big challenge, isn't it, to find a way to govern more effectively. The people—I mean, much of the opposition people that actually vote against him really do support many of the objectives of his administration. They're fed up with the ineffectiveness of some of the execution.

Well, exactly. That's one of the reasons why Capriles, the opposition candidate, was running practically on the same platform as Chávez: he was promising to continue almost all of Chávez's policies. I mean, many people didn't buy that argument that that was what he was really trying to do, but he had to do that because he realized—I mean, he's smart and he realized that that was a major reason for Chávez's popularity.

Okay. Well, in the coming weeks and months, we're going to follow some of these big issues like crime, like education and such and see how this next term unfolds, and we're going to make Venezuela kind of a regular go-to story. And we'll be going back to Gregory. And we're also going to have some people go again to Venezuela, as we have in the recent—last few weeks. And if you want to see more Venezuela stories, there's a donate button over here—'cause it's expensive to send people to Venezuela.