Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Look Inside The Minds 

Here is an article by a law professor who travels to Venezuela often to visit family. His perspective on how Chavez is viewed by the upper society is interesting. He asks some very poignant questions that are relevent for understanding the issues that both sides hold.


Venezuela's Chavez Avoids Class War

By Sergio Pareja
Law Professor

Pat Robertson's recently retracted suggestion that the United States should "take out" Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is an extreme echo of the views of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Earlier this year when asked by Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., if there was anything good she could say about Chavez, she responded, "It's pretty hard ... to find something positive."

I have traveled to Venezuela to visit family all my life. During my most recent trip, I could not avoid hearing about the "evils" of Chavez from the well-off, many of whom are convinced that he will turn Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship. Although this group recognizes that Chavez has done some good things for Venezuela, they think the bad greatly outweighs the good.

The huge lower class, on the other hand, adores Chavez and can point to countless positive developments during his presidency.

While in Venezuela this past June and July, I made it my personal quest to determine why Venezuela's upper classes hate Chavez. "He's a socialist," was a common response. Another common response was that he provokes the United States with his anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Other responses I received had more to do with guilt by association: Chavez hangs out with Fidel Castro and even visited Saddam Hussein at least once. Finally, I was commonly told that he is usurping patriotism for his political advantage and that he is trying to pack the courts with judges who think like he does. Sound familiar?

"But what is Chavez doing that you hate so much?" I asked. "What, specifically, are his governing policies?" The answers I received, while purely anecdotal, were telling. In general, the wealthy criticize his taxes and social programs, many of which are remarkably similar to U.S. social programs.

I discovered that, for the first time in Venezuela's history, the government is truly enforcing its tax laws. What does this mean from a leader who claims to be a "21st century socialist"? I asked my cousin, a successful orthopedic surgeon, what he now must pay in income taxes under Chavez. "10 percent to 15 percent of my income," was the response— not quite the wealth redistribution I'd envisioned.

I also learned that one of the biggest complaints about Chavez is that he has raised the national minimum wage from about $25 a week to about $40 a week. For live-in household servants, the rate increased from about $15 a week to about $25 a week.

To put this in context, this is what it costs to have somebody work for you from before sunrise until after dinner. Servants cook, clean, do laundry, watch your children, and basically do anything you ask them to do.

What else has Chavez done? In exchange for oil to Cuba, Castro has sent teams of Cuban physicians to Venezuela. Chavez then sends them into poor neighborhoods to provide free health care for people who have never seen a doctor in their lives.

In addition, he has built vocational schools in poor neighborhoods so poor people can learn skills that will allow them to earn more. The wealthy view this as raising the cost of labor.

What else has Chavez done? The Chavez government uses its oil wealth to hire workers to engage in public works projects, such as fixing potholes in roads, keeping parks clean, and improving public buildings. For example, the government is building the first-ever public subway system in Valencia. People of means complain that "only poor people will use it."

The government also has started a housing program for the poor through which the government works with builders to build livable, low-cost housing. It works with banks to provide long-term, low-interest loans to home buyers.

The feeling I got in Venezuela last month is that people with money still have money. I saw an abundance of new expensive cars on the road. One of my uncles continues to build and run high- rise apartments and hotels at a healthy profit.

I saw a complete freedom to speak out against the government, with daily newspaper articles and songs on the radio calling for Chavez's ouster. It made me question our freedom here in the United States. With so many people here opposed to the war in Iraq, and with some brilliant anti-war songs being written, why haven't I heard even one of those songs on the radio?

I am painfully aware that Chavez may ultimately turn out to be a cruel and corrupt dictator. That has been the history of Venezuela, and it certainly could happen again.

However, by giving a voice to the poor, Chavez also may have prevented a bloody class war. I have seen that Venezuelan war coming for years.

It is an embarrassment that our secretary of state doesn't see, or won't admit to seeing, any of the good that Chavez has done. It's also an embarrassment that the founder of the largest Christian political organization in this country would call for Chavez's assassination.

Sergio Pareja teaches at the University of New Mexico School of Law.


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