Venezuelan university professor speaks about Chavez opposition
Venezuelan opposition to Hugo Chavez and his government will have a chance to gain political ground in the country only if it defines what it wants to change in the government and recognizes the successes of the Chavista movement, a professor from a Venezuelan university told an audience of students and faculty Thursday in the Oklahoma Memorial Union’s Frontier Room.
Steve Ellner, director of the Center for Administrative and Economic Research at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela, said the Chavez opposition has failed to remove Chavez from power because it has “no notion of what’s going to get scrapped and what’s going to be retained” if they were to take control of the government. He said this confusion is due to the opposition being related to the period of the 1990s before Chavez was in power.
“Even those Venezuelans who dislike Chavez very much… don’t want to go back to the [1990s],” Ellner said.
Ellner said the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government from 1958 to 1989 was based on a strong interventionist policy in the economic and social affairs of the country. Nationalized industries, especially the oil industry, were used to promote economic and regional development and lessen social inequality.
In 1989, everything changed when Carlos Andrés Pérez, the president of Venezuela at the time, privatized industries that had been state run or owned by the Venezuelan public, and transferred these large sectors of the economy to foreign markets.
“Regardless of what we think of globalization, the fact of the matter is that the legitimacy of those governments for that extended period of time was based on the idea that the Venezuelan state was promoting national development,” Ellner said.
When Chavez came to power in 1998, he renationalized these industries, bringing back the kind of government Venezuela had identified with for a 30-year period, Ellner said.
Chavez also established social programs as a priority in his government, giving the poor the ability to be directly involved in government affairs, something Ellner said was a positive aspect of the system, but which had negative effects as well.
“Poor people feel that they have, for the first time, been incorporated and have some say-so in the decision-making process [of the government],” Ellner said. “That’s really essential to understand Chavez’s political success.”
Ellner said it was these successes of Chavez’s government that the opposition has failed to recognize, only focusing on the negative aspects, which has promoted unity among opposing political parties.
“The opposition has done too much to promote unity among itself, among the different parties, so much so that they brush aside differences so that the opposition doesn’t recognize the differences among themselves,” Ellner said.
If the opposition accepted the division among itself and recognized the successes and complexities of Chavez’s government, Ellner said it would be seen as a more legitimate movement.
“I think that any analysis, be it on the part of intellectuals like myself, or on the part of politicians and activists, has to take into consideration the complexity of what is taking place in Venezuela,” Ellner said.
Latin-American students attending the event had their own opinions on Chavez’s government.
“All the politicians around him… just care about having power,” said Pablo Baraja, Colombian Student Association president and petroleum engineering graduate student. “He took the right of normal people and gave it to poor people.”
Erica Perdomo, international and area studies graduate student said, “I do agree with some of the policies [Chavez] has, I just don’t agree with the way he has been implementing them.”
Perdomo, who said she came to OU from Venezuela five years ago, said it can be hard to express your ideology in Venezuela.
“Our society is really polarized. You’re either pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez,” she said.
Sterling Evans, history professor, said Chavez is frequently in the news and the same kind of polarization that exists in Venezuela exists in the U.S.
Ellner has taught as an economic history professor at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977. He has also authored several books, most recently Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon.