Tue, Sep 06, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Chavez talking about a `Bolivarian' revolution

AP , CARACAS, VENEZUELA

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, wave to supporters as they are driven down a street in Sandino, Cuba, on their way to the taping of the Venezuelan president's Sunday program ``Alo Presidente'' two weeks ago.

PHOTO: EPA

The shopping mall is a blur of Guess jeans, Louis Vuitton purses and Motorola cell phones, a temple of consumerism in a country that is supposed to be on a path toward socialism.

So popular is the Sambil Mall that "Sambil society" has become a derogatory term in the Venezuelan socialist vocabulary. Reject it and build a fairer Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez urges his nation of 25 million people. But for many, it's a hard sell.

"We're capitalists, consumers by nature," said 26-year-old Marbelys Gonzalez, strolling through the mall with two friends. "We're crazy about shopping. If we go out and don't end up buying anything, we don't feel good," she said, sunglasses perched atop her bleached blond hair.

Gonzalez isn't a member of the Venezuelan elite often derided by Chavez, but rather a middle-class university student whose spending money comes from her father, a jeweler, and her boyfriend, a soldier.

While most Venezuelans are too poor to afford luxuries, they live amid conspicuous consumption -- cosmetic surgery, SUVs, highways lined with billboards advertising Swiss watches and Scotch whiskey.

Ritzy social clubs, walled-in mansions and private schools are the norm for the wealthy, while the poor live in vast slums where unemployment runs high and gunfights are common. Chavez says capitalism created Venezuela's poverty, and a "new socialism of the 21st century" can end it.

"It's the search for social justice, for equality," Chavez said. "The capitalist model is perverse. It favors a minority and expropriates from the majority."

It remains unclear what sort of socialism Chavez may achieve, but his latest moves provide hints -- raising taxes on foreign companies pumping oil, setting up stores to sell cheap food to the needy, subsidizing farming and industrial cooperatives, and handing over some wealthy ranchers' lands to poor farmers.

"Every day it looks more like the communism of Fidel Castro," says Jesus Garrido Perez, an opposition congressman. "The economic disaster has begun."

"We aren't going to copy the Cuban model, or the Chinese model, or any model," Chavez said. "We're building our own model."

The ideology of that model is still being shaped. In a packed auditorium, high-ranking diplomat William Izarra led a recent seminar on Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," named after Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

"What do we mean by a new social order?" Izarra asked the crowd. "A new political system, a new way of guiding the society, a new way of thinking and interpreting reality."

His slide presentation used images of Bolivar, the yellow-blue-and-red Venezuelan flag, Che Guevara, Jesus Christ -- and Chavez wearing the presidential sash.

Some opponents accuse Chavez, a former army officer elected in 1998, of planning an assault on private property, pointing to his land reform program as a starter. But Chavez has insisted private property will be respected and business encouraged. So far, his sharpest attacks on the wealthy have been verbal.

"It's bad to be rich," Chavez said. "Those who have a lot of money should donate it."

Chavez has lashed out fiercely at his enemies, saying some right-wing defenders of the status quo are determined to bring him down or kill him. When American religious broadcaster Pat Robertson suggested the US assassinate him because he poses a threat, Chavez said Robertson had clearly "expressed the wish of the elite that govern the United States." Robertson has since apologized.

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