Caracas, Venezuela – Sitting on his psychologist’s couch in an upscale Caracas neighbourhood, Adrian Liberman believes divisions tearing at Venezuela’s social fabric are similar to the personal conflicts faced by all of us.
An election pitting incumbent Hugo Chavez, who claims to champion the poor by distributing oil wealth, against challenger Henrique Capriles, who promises inclusive economic growth, is the latest showdown in a country facing low-intensity civil strife.
“For an individual, I would try and have a person think deeply to try and untangle this division,” Liberman told Al Jazeera. “For a society, it’s a long assignment.”
Unprecedented social schisms have come to the fore since Chavez won the presidency in 1998 on a patform of ending corruption and poverty.
“I believe there have always been divisions among Venezuelans,” the psychologist said. “Chavez just brought them to light.”
Like the rest of Latin America, Venezuela is the product of colonialism. The history of a small elite controlling a country’s wealth sweeps across South America; but today’s polarisation is unique for the region.
In the 1960s, when most of the region was in the grip of military dictators, Venezuela was basically democratic.
Oil wealth allowed the country to build some of the region’s tallest skyscrappers, a world-class subway system and plenty of upscale neighbourhoods.
Urbanisation brought waves of poor farmers to the cities. They established shantytowns on the hills around Caracas and other major centres and were largely excluded from the boom years.
“I remember in the 1960s, the police would point a search light towards the shanty town and if they saw you, they’d shoot,” Manuel del Corral, a long-term resident of one of the slums told Al Jazeera. “Leftist students would hide here from the national guard.” But protests by students and attacks on slum-dwellers were ignored by large sectors of the population, as petro dollars flowed and the good times rolled.
Boom and bust
The Arab oil embargo of 1973 led to a further swelling of government coffers, allowing elites to educate their children in fine US universities while the poor struggled for two meals a day.
“For several decades, Venezuela had been ruled by two parties that alternated in power – many saw it as a fairly stable democracy,” Sujatha Fernandes, a sociology professor at City University of New York told Al Jazeera. “But already by the 1980s and 90s, there was disillusionment with those parties as poverty and inequality increased.”
“There is one spectrum of society that supports the government and the other – including most of the youth – have been completely ignored. ”
– Diego Scharifker (Student activist, with the opposition)
Oil prices crashed in 1986, eventually leading to waves of unpopular government spending cuts, intensifying lingering resentment between social classes.
A series of bloody riots over price hikes in 1989, known as “the Caracazo”, lead to hundreds if not thousands of deaths. President Carlos Andres Perez, who oversaw the government crackdown, was jailed in 1993 for embezzling public funds, accentuating social divisions and further undermining the two party system pioneered by local elites.
“The polarisation feeds itself in a vicious cycle,” Gregory Wilpert, author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government, told Al Jazeera. “It certainly contributes to extreme reactions.”
After attempting a coup in 1992, Chavez, a military officer from a working-class family, was jailed. He was pardoned in 1994 and won democratic elections in 1998, having won the hearts of the poor.
“Once I saw Chavez up close,” Ana Victoria Guerra, a teacher attending a pro-government rally, told Al Jazeera. “I believe there will be big changes for the poor. Things will keep getting better if he wins again.”
Rather than specific promises, it was “El Commandante’s” folksy touch, humble roots and promises of a more equal society that galvanised supporters. In a country traditionally ruled by light-skinned elites, it didn’t hurt that Chavez had dark, mestizo features.
“There is a deliberate emotional connection Chavez builds with the people,” Liberman said.
From the outset, his policies and personality roiled the middle classes. His rhetoric was strident and uncompromising, alienating the US, much of Venezuela’s intelligentsia and the business class.
With high crime and inflation, despite record oil prices during his 14-years in power, many in the opposition believe this election will mark the end of the Chavez period.
“The gap between rich and poor has bridged; we are now the most equal country in Latin America “
– Arturo Contreras (Activist working with the “Bolivarian Circles”)
“The country is divided half and half, but there isn’t the same motivation in the Chavez camp this time around,” Diego Scharifker, 22, a high-profile student activist with the opposition, told Al Jazeera. “There is one spectrum of society that supports the government and the other – including most of the youth – have been completely ignored.”
The government has asserted control over public workers, forcing them to attend Chavez rallies, Scharifker said, while restricting opposition access to state broadcasters and closing TV channels critical of the government.
Liberman, the psychologist, believes the social divide has been strong because political parties “deny the existence of others” in their rhetoric.
Unsurprisingly, each side blames the other for polarisation. The opposition, newly united behind Capriles, a former state governor and tireless campaigner, believes Chavez is responsible for sowing division.
“Chavez has split the country in half,” said Luis Gonzalez, an unemployed engineer who once supported the incumbent but switched to the opposition. “We should be united as a country,” he told Al Jazeera.
Government supporters say they were excluded from the national discussion for generations and now their voices must be heard.
“The gap between rich and poor has bridged; we are now the most equal country in Latin America,” said Arturo Contreras, an activist working in a poor community with the pro-government “Bolivarian Circles”. Poverty and inequality have dropped sharply during Chavez’s tenure era, according to the World Bank and the UN.
“There has always been a social division here but the people were blindfolded,” Contreras told Al Jazeera. “Chavez showed people that the rich enjoyed all the benefits at the expense of the poor.”
If Chavez brought Venezuela’s divisions into the light, then the attempted coup of 2002 set them on fire.
A strike by anti-Chavez employees at PDVSA, the state oil company, led to street demonstrations, violence and an attempted government takeover.
Pedro Carmona, a coup leader and president of the business lobby group Fedecamaras, was appointed as interim president, without the slightest shred of democratic legitimacy. He quickly began repealing economic laws introduced by the elected government.
The business mogul travelled to Washington before the coup and he allegedly had support from senior members of the George W Bush administration who ran the White House at the time.
After being reinstated by loyal army officers, Chavez accelerated his programme of expropriations. His anti-US rhetoric – understandably according to some – increased.
“We are victims of sabotage,” Irma Torres, a pro-Chavez activist, told Al Jazeera, referring to local and international forces who oppose the government’s policies.
Unlike campaigns in some countries, where candidates have similar platforms, Venezuela’s election is a clash of ideas. Strong opinions are, in a sense, understandable.
“Polarisation begins because there are two different political projects,” Rafael Calles, a pro-Chavez mayor from Portuguesa State, told Al Jazeera. “It’s very hard to come to an agreement.”
Both camps staged massive rallies prior to Sunday’s vote, pulling hundreds of thousands of supporters onto the streets of the capital. Cars festooned with Chavista red, or Capriles’ blue, red and yellow, drove around the city honking horns and waving flags.
Stuck in Caracas’ notorious traffic, two vehicles from the opposing parties pulled up beside each other on Thursday, honking and waving their respective flags. One of the Chavistas looked out the window and ran his finger across his neck, as if to say “you are dead” to his political rivals.
“If violence happens, it’s going to be from the [government] side,” Scharifker said.
There are a few issues Venezuelans generally agree upon. In 2011, when citizens of Latin American countries were asked if they were satisfied with the “functioning of democracy” by the polling firm Latinobarometro, Venezuelans had the fifth highest opinion in the region, far ahead of US allies such as Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala.
Chavez and Capriles both want to keep the “missions” providing social programmes in poor areas, but the opposition leader says he can organise the services more effectively.
When asked to name one positive aspect of Chavez’s tenure, Scharifker said: “Poverty has now become a main aspect of the political discourse.”
Bolivarian plans for poverty alleviation have been “unsuccessful”, the law student said, but “now Chavez and Capriles both have poverty as a main campaign issue.” As voters head to the polls on Sunday, at least the two leading candidates agree on something.