Skip to main content

The Education of Hugo Chávez: Unraveling Venezuela’s Revolutionary Path

ISSUE:  Spring 2011
Hugo Chavez speaking in front of a large banner with an image of himself in red.

In the spring of 1999, newly-elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sent a letter to a man serving a life sentence in a French prison. Chávez addressed the prisoner (who is Venezuelan by birth) as a “distinguished compatriot,” and closed by writing, “With profound faith in our cause and our mission, now and forever!” The prisoner’s name was Ilich Ramírez, known to the world as Carlos the Jackal, the international terrorist who carried out an amazing string of bombings, hijackings, and assassinations throughout Europe and the Middle East in the seventies and eighties. Chávez has called the Jackal “a good friend” and is pushing to extradite him back to Venezuela. “I defend him,” Chávez said recently. “I don’t care what they say tomorrow in Europe.”

For Chávez, the Jackal is a “revolutionary fighter,” and just one in an extended family that includes Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Simon Bolivar, all of whom are Chávez’s personal heroes. Indeed, Chávez’s strong identification with the revolutionary left helps illuminate some of his most controversial moves—his arms buildup, his support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and why he is helping Iran search for uranium in Venezuela.

But what exactly is “the cause and the mission” Chávez claims to share with the Jackal, and what does this reveal about his vision for Venezuela? To truly understand Chávez’s grand designs twelve years into what he has called his “permanent” revolution, one must return to the Venezuela of the sixties, to “the resistance,” and to the guerrillas who nurtured and mentored both Chávez and Carlos the Jackal. Tracing the revolutionary path and exploring the ideas and personalities that formed Chávez reveals that the president sees himself as far more than the leader of a Caribbean nation. Like Bolivar and Castro before him, Chávez has cast his ambition across continents, and, ultimately, it is the Venezuelan people who will pay for it.

The Resistance

This story begins with a prison break.

The year is 1963. In the San Carlos military stockade in Caracas, three men sit in their cells: Guillermo García Ponce, Teodoro Petkoff, and Luis Miquilena. Unbeknownst to them, all will play crucial roles in the life of a nine-year-old boy they have never heard of: Hugo Chávez. The three men are accused of collaborating with the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN)—the militant wing of the Venezuelan Communist Party’s (PCV) that is waging a guerrilla war against the government.

It is the height of the Cold War, and Venezuela—home to the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East—has become a major battleground. Just five years earlier, in 1958, the country finally sloughed off its last military dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. But the infant democracy is on shaky footing. While the two largest parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian Democrats (Copei), have agreed to share power and align with the US, their coalition is under attack by the FALN. China and the Italian communists are sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the guerillas, but their biggest supporter by far is Fidel Castro. Since coming to power in 1959, Castro has been itching to export his revolution to Venezuela, a country he sees as a breadbasket of natural resources and a beachhead into South America. In addition to bombarding Venezuela with radio propaganda, Castro is feeding the FALN a steady stream of money, weapons, and military advisors.

Hugo Chavez standing in front of a painting of a thin man in a red embroidered coat.
President Hugo Chávez stands before a portrait of Venezuela’s national hero Simón Bolívar. (edwin montilva / reuters / corbis)

With Castro’s help, the FALN has sabotaged oil pipelines, kidnapped a US colonel, assassinated police officers, and bombed the American Embassy and a Sears, Roebuck warehouse. In one incident, an ironic Venezuelan version of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a small force led by Cuban officers is captured on the beach of Machurucuto.

While Miquilena’s connection to the FALN is tenuous, it is common knowledge that Petkoff and García Ponce are behind the attacks, but because of congressional immunity President Romulo Betancourt is powerless to stop them. At first, the best he can do is break all political ties with Cuba and recommend Cuba’s expulsion from the Organization of American States.

But that all changes when the FALN steps up its assaults in an effort to sabotage the December 1963 elections. It is a crucial vote—the first time in Venezuelan history that a democratically elected leader will pass the reins of power to another democratically elected leader. After two failed coup attempts orchestrated by Castro and the FALN, President Betancourt decides he has had enough; he suspends the amnesty and initiates a massive crackdown. Soon Petkoff, Miquilena, and García Ponce are the star guests in the San Carlos stockade.

While the men sit in prison, scores of their comrades are arrested and tortured. At the same time, other FALN members are being killed in skirmishes with Venezuela’s security forces. With the help of the United States (including the training of an elite counter-insurgency force modeled after the Army Rangers), President Betancourt is slowly crushing the resistance.

Realizing that their rebellion may soon collapse, the FALN leaders decide they must break out of jail. Using an ingenious system of clandestine communication—everything from notes written on onion skins to a compass stuffed inside a rotisserie chicken—they begin planning their escape with the help of comrades on the outside. A young Syrian Marxist named Nehemet Simón spearheads the effort. He buys a coffee shop across the street from the prison, and while he serves espresso and pastelitos to the off-duty prison guards, his workers begin digging a sixty-meter tunnel.

The work proceeds slowly. The air in the tunnel makes the workers sick, and twice they lose their bearings underground. In the end, a tunnel they hoped would be finished in a few months takes three and a half years to complete. By the time it is ready in 1967, Simón has become such good friends with the prison officials that he hosts a party in the shop for them and puts the captain of the guard in the seat of honor, directly on top of the tunnel entrance. On February 7, 1967, they finally attempt their escape. It is Fat Tuesday, the end of Carnaval. Luis Miquilena has been released by now, so Petkoff and García Ponce are joined by Pompeyo Márquez, another FALN leader.

All day they wait anxiously for the signal. At precisely 7 p.m., they hear a tapping under the floor. They lift a panel to find Nelson López, one of Simón’s workers. First into the tunnel is Márquez, then García Ponce, and finally Petkoff. They emerge a few minutes later in the coffee shop, and Simón quietly drives them away in his station wagon. They are free.

The newspapers declare it the most amazing prison break in history, and the tunnel becomes a tourist attraction. Simón immediately flees the country, but the other men stay, living in safe houses and working clandestinely for the FALN. But the resistance is still collapsing, principally because the FALN has never managed to win the support of the people it needs the most—the poor.

Political scientists will later conclude that the insurgency had the opposite effect it intended. As the radical offshoot of Acción Democrática, the FALN made the AD appear much more moderate, the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the right. The FALN guerrillas also unified the armed forces by giving them a common enemy and keeping them out of politics.

Another blow to the FALN was the loss of its financial support from Cuba. By the late sixties, Castro’s games were causing the Kremlin considerable embarrassment as it tried to negotiate détente with the US. Finally, First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev decided to rein in Castro by threatening to pull Soviet subsidies to Cuba if he didn’t behave. Castro reluctantly complied, and the flow of money and arms to the FALN came to an abrupt halt.

By the end of the decade the FALN was emaciated. A general amnesty was offered in 1968 and most FALN leaders took it. One of the few who did not was Douglas Bravo, a man who would also cross paths with Hugo Chávez. Because Bravo refused to take the nonviolent route, he was ejected by the communists, so he began a new party—the Revolutionary Party of Venezuela (PRV)—and continued his attacks on the government.

But the disintegration was not yet complete. In 1971 the PCV split into pro- and anti-Soviet camps, in part over the role of violence in “the revolution” and in part because of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Petkoff felt that the Venezuelan socialists had made an enormous error by aligning with Castro and so he founded another group, the anti-Soviet Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). García Ponce remained with the official communist party, the PCV, and Miquilena joined the center-left party URD. Eventually, Petkoff’s party, MAS, became the most mainstream, but the infighting was costly. In the 1973 presidential elections three socialist parties each ran a separate candidate, none of which gained more than 5.1 percent of the vote. After their defeat, most of the communists soon melted back into everyday life—working in schools, the courts, and the military—and the movement went into a kind of remission. Still, the seeds of revolution had been planted, and the socialists would have their day.

The Rise of Hugo Chávez

It was in this political climate that a seventeen-year-old Hugo Chávez entered the Venezuelan Military Academy in 1971. “I dreamed of being a professional baseball player,” he said. “I didn’t enter the military academy because I wanted to be a soldier, but because that was the only way to get to Caracas.” Chávez, one of six boys, had been born in a rancho, a cheap brick hut, in the small country town of Sabaneta. The military was his ticket out of the plains and into the big baseball stadiums of Caracas. Chávez was soon thrown into the political struggle, however. As a paratrooper lieutenant, his first assignments were in counter-insurgency. It became his job to hunt down and eradicate the remaining guerrillas. But Chávez found he empathized with them.

Two events helped galvanize his views. One rainy night a patrol brought back a group of suspected guerrillas. At ten o’clock, Chávez was awakened by terrible screams. “The soldiers were beating the prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in rags so they wouldn’t leave any marks,” Chávez recalled. He stopped the soldiers, although doing so almost got him court-martialed. A few days later he witnessed brutality from the other side—an army platoon was ambushed by the guerrillas and seven soldiers died. For Chávez, the violence was much more about social class than ideology. “On one side peasants in military uniforms torture peasant guerrillas, and on the other peasant guerrillas kill peasant [soldiers],” he said. He felt the real enemies were the rich political elites that controlled Venezuela’s oil wealth.

Chávez was about to leave the army in disgust when he discovered that his brother, Adán, was secretly working with Douglas Bravo, one of the few remaining members of the hardcore resistance. Adán arranged a meeting between Chávez and Bravo that would eventually alter the course of Venezuelan history. “He inspired me and I realized I wouldn’t be leaving the army,” Chávez later said.

The two worked closely together for nearly a decade, Chávez learning much from the charismatic and venerable Bravo. At Bravo’s urging Chávez began spreading their revolutionary ideology within the military with the goal of eventually taking power in a coup and running the country with a mix of civilian and military leaders. Encouraged by his new mentor, Chávez spent the rest of his military career conspiring with and learning from the same guerrillas that he was purportedly wiping out, all the while maneuvering himself into a position to gain more power, more troops, and more hardware.

It is important to note that Bravo’s insistence on the use of violence was not necessarily born of militancy, but rather a strain of revolutionary logic. He and the radical left were a minority; they knew it, and their failure to win elections proved it. For a minority to gain power, it required guns. The trick, Bravo and others believed, was to gain power by force, then take on a populist disguise to present your uprising as the will of the masses. It was a lesson Chávez would remember.

The opportunity to take power finally came on February 4, 1992. Just before dawn, the 38-year-old Chávez, now a lieutenant colonel, led one of five army units in an attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s very unpopular president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez failed to accomplish his part of the mission—capturing President Pérez—and he soon found himself and his men surrounded. While some of the other commanders had captured their objectives in other cities, a partial coup was no coup at all and Chávez, unbeknownst to his comrades, quickly brokered a deal with the government. To get the other conspirators to give up, Chávez was permitted to make a nationally televised plea. In retrospect, it was an enormous mistake for the government because it launched Chávez into political life. The paratrooper told his co-conspirators to put down their weapons. He said it was futile to keep fighting, and he took full responsibility for the botched coup. Then a curious thing happened. Chávez suddenly became a hero. In fact, by the time of the annual Mardi Gras festival later that month, the masquerade costume of choice for little boys was the green fatigues and red beret of Hugo Chávez.

Hugo Chavez and his co-conspiritors in jail.
After his failed coup attempt of 1992, Chávez and his co-conspirators were arrested. Pictured here in jail, Chávez stands next to Francisco Arias (second right), who later ran for president against him in 2000, and Jesús Urdaneta (center), who signed the referendum against Chávez in 2004. (reuters / corbis)

Chávez had arrived at a perfect moment. While the two major political parties had reigned over an impressive period of modernity during the boom years of the seventies, by the early nineties they were viewed as out of touch with the masses. Corrupted by oil wealth, they had created a pseudo-democracy that catered only to the middle and upper-classes through a system of clientelism that neglected the poor. In Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s lower classes saw someone taking a stand against the corrupt system, someone brave enough to risk his life to change Venezuela. Viewed as an outsider, Chávez, with his coffee-and-cream skin and humble background, seemed more in tune with the needs of the poor than the light-skinned leaders who dominated politics and controlled the country’s wealth. Unwittingly, Chávez had gained the perfect populist disguise. Just two years after the attempted coup, President Rafael Caldera bowed to public pressure and released Chávez from prison.

Chávez was now free, but he was also broke and homeless. Fortunately, someone was waiting for him when he stepped out of prison, a man who had decided that Hugo Chávez was his best chance for reviving the revolution of the sixties—Luis Miquilena.

Since his own imprisonment with Petkoff and García Ponce over thirty years earlier, Miquilena had not given up on his dream of reforming Venezuelan society. Now almost eighty, with a blanched round face and a love of cigars, he felt he could still make a difference. The best way to do that, he felt, was a whole new constitution—he wanted to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Five years earlier, in 1989, he had begun a mass movement along with Douglas Bravo and many other former guerrilla fighters to push for a Constitutional Assembly. But the movement lacked political will. It needed a leader. Miquilena knew Hugo Chávez could be that leader. “He filled the vacuum left by the political parties and capitalized on the country’s discontent,” Miquilena said. “I helped him take up this flag, the flag to resolve our social problems.”

The Roots of Revolution

The Three Prisoners: Guillermo Garcia Ponce (left), Teodoro Petkoff (center), and Luis Miquilena (right).
1963 The Three Prisoners: Guillermo Garcia Ponce (left), Teodoro Petkoff (center), and Luis Miquilena (right) are imprisoned together in the San Carlos military stockade.

At the age of 15, Ilich Ramírez is the leader of the Communist party's youth wing.1964 At the age of 15, Ilich Ramírez is the leader of the Communist party’s youth wing. During this time, Ilich and his father move between Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Florida working with Castro, the Faln, and disgruntled Venezuelan military offi cers in an effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government.

Douglas Bravo, the most radical of the group, continues his armed struggle against the government.1968 The Faln breaks apart. Douglas Bravo, the most radical of the group, continues his armed struggle against the government.

Ilich pulls off the spectacular kidnapping of 11 OPEC oil ministers and takes the nom de guerre of Carlos the Jackal.1975 Working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ilich pulls off the spectacular kidnapping of 11 OPEC oil ministers and takes the nom de guerre of “Carlos the Jackal.”

1976 Ilich begins his own terrorist group and is contracted by East Germany, Libya, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, and anti-Zionist groups.

Chaves in military attire.1977 Chávez and Bravo begin working together. Soon Chávez begins an insurgency group within the army with the goal of eventually taking power and setting up a civilian-military junta.

1992 Chávez’s coup attempt fails, but much to the surprise of many, he becomes a cult hero.

After his release from prison, Luis Miquilena takes Chávez into his home and launches him as a political candidate.
1994 After his release from prison, Luis Miquilena takes Chávez into his home and launches him as a political candidate. Together they travel to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro.

That same year Carlos is apprehended in Sudan and imprisoned in France.

1999 Hugo Chávez becomes president of Venezuela, and the government begins a campaign to extradite the Jackal back to Venezuela.

Guillermo García Ponce.
2002 On April 11, after a bloody street battle which many blame on Chávez, luis miquilena pulls his support for the government. Chávez is then ousted by the military only to be restored less than 48 hours later thanks to the efforts of Guillermo García Ponce and a group of loyal military offi cers.

Teodoro Petkoff.
2006 Teodoro Petkoff, now a socialist democrat, loses to Chávez in the presidential election.

Luis Miquilena.
2011 Now over 90, Luis Miquilena has retired from public life. He has described his role in mentoring Chávez as his “great sin.”

The Jackal remains in a French jail (posing here in front of a backdrop).2011 The Jackal remains in a French jail (posing here in front of a backdrop), but the Venezuelan government is still pushing for his extradition. Guillermo García Ponce published regular updates on his life in prison in the pro-Chávez newspaper VEA.

Miquilena took Chávez into his home and soon set him up as a political candidate, with their eyes on the presidency. At first, Chávez was reluctant. He still believed that armed force was the only way to achieve true revolution. But Miquilena was able to convince him that it could be done through the ballot box.

In 1999 Hugo Chávez became the president of Venezuela, and Miquilena finally realized his dream: he was the president of the Constitutional Assembly that created a new constitution. It was a major shift in power for Venezuela. Chávez’s alliance won 122 of the assembly’s 131 seats. The Assembly, in turn, made sure that Chávez’s coalition gained unprecedented control over the legislature and the Supreme Court. The revolutionaries were back.

Many former guerrillas were given important posts in the new government. Luis Miqilena became the Minister of the Interior. Guillermo García Ponce became one of the president’s closest advisors—a leader of the Tactical Command for the Revolution and eventually the editor of Vea, the daily mouthpiece of the revolution. Even Carlos the Jackal was considered for a position; he was almost made an honorary member of the National Assembly.

Only a few years later, in 2002, Garcia Ponce would be a key Chávez ally when a doomed coup attempt briefly unseated him. But around the same time Miquilena would break with the president, call for resistance against him, and be labeled a traitor of the revolution. The opposition to Chávez now refers to Miquilena as “Dr. Frankenstein,” the man who created a monster he couldn’t control. Teodoro Petkoff’s ultimate impact on Chávez has yet to be written. As the editor of the daily Tal Cual, he is one of the leaders of the opposition against Chávez and the symbol of the more moderate left. He ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential election and may likely run against him again in 2012.

Today, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has matured significantly. Borrowing heavily from Cuban and Soviet doctrine, Chávez’s economic policy rejects what he called “the demons sown by capitalism,” namely, globalization, the Washington Consensus, and neoliberalism—the combination of privatization, free trade, and austerity policies that many blamed for the country’s economic collapse. Chávez’s foreign policy is also heavily influenced by anti-Americanism, most clearly embodied in his desire to create a regional power bloc—the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)—strong enough to compete with the US and the European Union. It currently has nine members including Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia. For Chávez the idea holds a special romanticism, linking him neatly and importantly with South America’s most famous revolutionary, Simon Bolivar.

The link cannot be underestimated. Bolivar, a Venezuelan by birth, was one of the principal leaders of South America’s wars of independence from Spain. In his day, Bolivar had also been distrustful of the US, and he had wanted to create a “United States of South America,” though he did not necessarily believe that US-style democracy could work in South America. Bolivar came closest to his dream in 1819 with Gran Colómbia—the short-lived union of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. For Chávez, the long-dead liberator is a potent muse. Shortly after assuming the presidency, Chávez even changed Venezuela’s official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. It is no secret that Chávez hopes to create a superstate like Bolivar did, uniting those countries and perhaps many more.

Return of the Jackal

If Hugo Chávez was the surrogate son of the sixties guerrilla movement, then Carlos the Jackal was the literal son. The Jackal’s father was José Altagracía Ramírez, a militant communist who had struggled against the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez with his close friend Luis Miquilena in the fifties and then supported Castro and the FALN in the sixties.

From birth, the Jackal was raised to be a revolutionary fighter. His father gave his son the name Ilich after Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov—AKA Vladimir Lenin. (Ilich’s younger brothers were named Vladimir and Lenin.) “Carlos” was a nom de guerre he acquired in the seventies. At the age of eleven, Ilich said he participated in his first two “conspiratorial experiences” with his father. In 1964, at the age of fifteen, he was the leader of the PCV’s youth wing, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), which was founded by García Ponce. During the Betancourt crackdown, and while Miquilena, Petkoff and García Ponce were jailed, Carlos and his father moved between Bogotá, Miami, and Venezuela working with Castro, the FALN, and disgruntled Venezuelan military officers in an effort to overthrow Betancourt. The PCV later funded Carlos’s studies at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. After college Carlos worked in Cuba creating a terrorist cell called Punto Cero (Zero Point).

Eventually, he moved to France where he worked with Palestinian Marxists, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, attacking Jewish and Israeli targets in the Middle East and Europe. (The Popular Front, along with Black September, is most famous for the kidnapping and killing of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games in 1972, although Carlos was not involved in the operation.) In 1976, after a falling out with Popular Front leader Wadi Haddad, Carlos set up his own group of terrorists-for-hire that plied their trade for anti-West and anti-Israeli groups and governments. He soon became a legend, and over the course of the next fifteen years conducted scores of assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings. He worked for a host of nations, including East Germany, Libya, Czechoslovakia, Syria, and Iraq, and he also collaborated with anti-Zionist groups, providing their “diplomacy by other means.” As long as his clients sought to attack “the imperialists,” the Jackal took the job.

The Jackal was finally captured in Khartoum in 1994, the same year Chávez was released from prison for his coup attempt. When Chávez and his communist handlers came to power in 1999, the Jackal’s father beseeched them to help his son, and Chávez apparently agreed. Communiqués from Caracas to the Venezuelan embassy in Paris discussed how to reopen the Jackal’s case and how to use $500,000 from a secret fund to pay his legal fees. Yet, when Chávez was asked to explain his letter to the Jackal, the president insisted it “did not imply political solidarity.”

After the September 11 attacks, the Chávez administration temporarily distanced itself from Carlos, likely due to the prisoner’s enthusiastic endorsement of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Jackal, who has converted to Islam, said that bin Laden’s struggle was his too, and that 9/11 was a “lofty feat of arms.” Yet Chávez’s recent round of praise for Carlos and the renewed push for his extradition shows that Chávez is becoming bolder in displaying his radical roots. Guillermo García Ponce printed regular updates on Carlos’s life in prison in his newspaper, Vea, until his death in September last year. Carlos is a “revolutionary compatriot demonized in international Judaism’s media campaigns,” the paper has said.

Some believe that the Chávez administration’s praise of the Jackal is a tactic to win easy points with radical Islam. After all, Venezuela has moved close to Syria, Libya and, most importantly, Iran. Venezuela is currently helping Iran with its nuclear program by letting it search for uranium in Venezuela. In return, Venezuela has received weapons and has been promised aid in developing its own nuclear program. The countries also have set up joint banking operations, which worry some security specialists because of their lack of transparency.

The Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is partially financed by the government of Iran, has also increased its activity in Venezuela and Colombia, trafficking cocaine from the FARC in Colombia, through Venezuela—where enforcement is lax—to West Africa, and finally to markets in Europe. The profits from the drug sales combined with support from Tehran are what keep the Hezbollah going. Whether this operation is officially condoned by the Chávez government is unclear, but Chávez’s empathy for the Colombian FARC and his growing relationship with Iran make it unlikely that he would hinder the efforts of Hezbollah, a group both his allies support.

Indeed, the bridge between the revolutionary left and radical Islam, personified in the career of Carlos the Jackal, seems as if it is being remade by Hugo Chávez. During a visit to Iran late last year, Chávez made the connection himself in a speech. “Our two revolutions,” he said,” the Islamic Revolution and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, are in the end, one single fight.”

Cuban Connections

When Chávez was released from prison in 1994, Luis Miquilena wasn’t the only one who took a special interest in him. Just a few months after his release, Chávez was invited to Havana by Fidel Castro. Miquilena recalled that Castro was not only waiting for them on the tarmac, but accompanied them the entire trip, even staying up past midnight and cooking with them. Speaking at the University of Havana, Chávez said, “We do not rule out the path of weapons in Venezuela.” He explained that his plan had a great deal to offer Cuba, “a project with a horizon that stretches for twenty to forty years.” After his visit, Chávez spent six months in Colombia where he met with both FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) leaders.

After taking office in 1999, President Chávez returned to Cuba to play baseball with Castro and the floodgates finally opened. Venezuela “is going in the same direction, toward the same sea where the Cuban nation is going, the sea of happiness,” Chávez said famously. By 2000, Venezuela had became Cuba’s biggest trading partner, selling oil to the island at rock-bottom prices in exchange for legions of Cuban physicians, health-care workers, agricultural advisors, and sports trainers (many of whom promptly defected). Chávez’s personal security was even supervised by G2—Castro’s secret service.

Between 1999 and 2004 the two leaders met more than fifteen times and reportedly spoke on the phone every few days. Chávez’s personal pilot at the time recalls that whenever Chávez was having a tough time as president, he could expect a call from the palace telling him to get the plane ready for a trip to Havana. But perhaps more telling was the way the two men interacted. They would put their arms around each other and sing songs on TV, and Chávez would blow kisses as Castro’s plane departed. “For me, Fidel is like a father,” Chávez said. After progressing through several father figures, including Douglas Bravo and Luis Miquilena, Chávez seemed to have finally found his man in the elderly Cuban revolutionary.

To many it seemed an odd partnership, but it was advantageous to both leaders. The same year that Chávez came to power, Russia finally cut its Cold War-era subsidies to Cuba, leaving the island desperate for foreign aid. Venezuela replaced Russia as Cuba’s economic lifeline. Today, Venezuela’s oil shipments to the island amount to $2.5 billion per year. With Venezuelan oil Castro was able to bolster the Cuban economy and keep his revolution alive. For Chávez, a young and relatively inexperienced statesman facing powerful internal opposition, Castro offered expertise in running a social revolution and managing political turmoil. In addition, as Wikileaks recently disclosed, Castro sent Chávez many, many spies. Borrowing from the Cuban system, Chávez created a national police force whose top advisor was Cuban. And in 2005, Cuba was given a contract to “update” Venezuela’s identification card system. This, combined with a strong Cuban presence in immigration and the oil sector, has many Venezuelans worried Chávez may adopt the other, darker aspects of the Cuban system, including increased state surveillance and repression.

For Castro, the new Cuban-Venezuelan alliance finally meant the revolution could expand. Here, at last, was Castro’s foothold in South America. Now in his twilight, influence he had tried to establish through armed revolt in the sixties—in Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—had come to him through the Venezuelan ballot box. And, since Chávez took office in 1999, Latin America has seen a dramatic shift to the left. Today the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and El Salvador are not simply leftists, they are pro-Castro and pro-Chávez.

Perhaps most emblematic of the historic shift was a ceremony held in Venezuela in June 2006 to commemorate the 39th anniversary of Cuba’s failed invasion at the beach Machurucuto. The Venezuelan military held a reenactment of the invasion and erected a memorial in honor of Castro’s security chief, Briones Montoto, who had been killed by Venezuelan soldiers.

In 2007, Chávez delivered his weekly television address from the Memorial to Che Guevara in the Cuban village of Santa Clara.
In 2007, Chávez delivered his weekly television address from the Memorial to Che Guevara in the Cuban village of Santa Clara. (ho / reuters / corbis)

Permanent Revolution

So where, exactly, is the Bolivarian Revolution going? Certainly there is nothing automatically wrong with ties to Cuba, nor with wealth redistribution in a nation where 31 percent of the population lives in poverty. But in many ways Chávez appears to be carrying forward the revolutionary agenda Castro was forced to abandon forty years ago. And, when Chávez continues to purchase military hardware, call for a million-man militia to defend against American invasion, insist his nation needs a nuclear reactor, and reach across oceans to forge unusual alliances, it is not difficult to hear echoes of an older revolutionary era. It is also not difficult to imagine Chávez building the foundations of dictatorship.

Some military experts point out that Chávez’s policies are textbook asymmetrical warfare—the strategy that uses every available method, including propaganda, foreign aid, and overt and covert military action to gain political influence. Critics point to Chávez’s arms buildup as well as a host of other actions to support their claim: Chávez has set up six TV stations—five domestic and one international—to broadcast his ideological message; he sells oil to other nations at deep discounts to gain political leverage; he has given generous financial support to Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador; and he is aiding the Colombian FARC in the hopes that they will eventually gain power in Colombia (or, failing that, provide him with a combat hardened force should he need them). Finally, critics argue that the economic bloc that ALBA would create is just the first step in a new union of socialist republics. They contend that it is all a concerted plan to spread the revolution across Latin America in a sort of “superinsurgency.”

But is this really Chávez’s plan? Chávez’s aid to the FARC, in particular, bolsters the theory. Shortly after he took office, FARC training camps began to pop up in Venezuelan territory. It was soon reported that Chávez was directing the military to help the guerrillas—supplying ammunition for their raids into Colombia as well as issuing them Venezuelan identity cards to allow them free rein within Venezuela. My sources tell me that Chávez’s own militia groups—the Bolivarian Circles—were even sent to the camps to receive training from the guerrillas.

Then, on March 1, 2008, a hard drive captured in a raid on a FARC camp showed that Chávez planned to give the group $300 million, and that he had received money from the FARC himself ($150,000) while imprisoned in 1992 for his attempted coup. The files also indicated that the FARC were collaborating with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The files detailed a planned “FARC summit,” which all these leaders hoped to attend. Suddenly, the idea of a “superinsurgency” was not so farfetched.

After the hard drive scandal, Chávez denied involvement. But the Colombian military says it located the FARC camp by intercepting a call from Chávez to FARC leader Raúl Reyes, who was killed in the raid. Chávez’s immediate reaction was to move ten battalions to the Colombian border, a move that puzzled many since the raid had occurred in Ecuador. Some speculated that it was to protect the FARC camps within Venezuela from a similar attack. Chávez insisted he had no connection to the guerrillas, going as far as saying that the FARC should disband because the armed struggle was “out of place.

Chávez’s sudden change of heart was hard to believe, and, in the summer of 2009, a series of captured emails from within the FARC secretariat showed that support from the Venezuela government had not abated. One deal, brokered by Chávez emissary Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, included the transfer of sniper rifles, surface-to-air missiles, and radios to the FARC.

Yet many are dubious of Chávez’s “superinsurgency.” Indeed, the closer one looks at the Chávez record, the more it feels like Chávez’s designs are merely a jejune hodgepodge of initiatives, not a plan for global revolution. This is, after all, a government fraught with levels of waste, mismanagement, and corruption that far eclipse its predecessors. In 2009, the government “lost” $51 billion (a little over half the nation’s 2009 federal budget), and, despite possessing the most natural resources per acre of any country in the southern hemisphere, South America regularly experiences rolling blackouts and food shortages. Indeed, Chávez has turned back the clock on Venezuela’s development in many ways, principally by failing to wean the country off oil dependency. When Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuela derived 64 percent of its export revenue from oil. Despite the massive profits from the 2003–2008 oil boom, it is now less diversified than ever, relying on oil for 92 percent of its export revenue.

Additionally, Chávez’s price control programs have driven hundreds of domestic enterprises out of business, while his nationalization and expropriation of other enterprises has caused massive capital flight. The result of all this is that Venezuela continues to slide into recession (its economy is projected to contract again this year, by 2.5 percent) even as its neighbors have pulled themselves out of it. Under such incredible pressure, Venezuelan society shows signs of hemorrhage, best illustrated in the nation’s housing crisis and a jagged increase in violent crime that has lead to Caracas being dubbed “the murder capital of the world.”

A woman walks past posters depicting Chávez, Bolivian president Evo Morales, and former Cuban president Fidel Castro.
A woman walks past posters depicting Chávez, Bolivian president Evo Morales, and former Cuban president Fidel Castro “united for a greater fatherland.” (david mercado / reuters / corbis)

Given the chaos of Chávez’s domestic policy, it is hard to see him as the plotting mastermind. But the gap between his domestic and foreign policies is also illuminated by his identity as a revolutionary, and his focus on building alliances abroad and demonizing enemies like the United States has shielded him somewhat from his own sagging record on the home front. Indeed, these stances have often fed his popularity, and he is very likely to win reelection in 2012. But while most people, even most Venezuelans, think of Hugo Chávez as the president of a country, that is not how the president sees himself.

Chávez’s first priority is to be the anti-capitalist, anti-Western leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, and this is a much larger project. As fantastic as it may appear, Chávez seems to sincerely believe he can lead a global socialist revolution along the lines that Marx predicted, and that he can create a global power to rival the old Soviet Union. It is important to remember that Hugo Chávez was indoctrinated not by moderate socialist leaders, but by the most militant ones—Douglas Bravo, Guillermo García Ponce, Fidel Castro. The line of influence is clear: Chávez has consistently identified with, even idolized, men who believe the rule of law and human rights are secondary to “the cause.” For them, the revolution must move forward no matter the cost. This is why Chávez connects with nations like Bolivia, Nicaragua, Iran, and Russia and groups like the FARC. It is why he identifies with Carlos the Jackal. This is also why he will continue to focus on the international expansion of his revolution at the expense of national well-being.

Chávez has said that the Venezuelan revolution is just beginning, and he has called upon his people to make it permanent. Ironically, his unwavering loyalty to hard-left creeds has left him apparently oblivious to, or unwilling to face, the forces that could bring his revolution to a spluttering halt. Like Castro before him, Chávez may soon find himself the leader of an isolated, crippled nation that some may romanticize but few would choose to follow.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading