INTRODUCTION Government focus on equal opportunities and employment for all
‘Laws must generate justice’

Hugo Chavez is the military man who came from nowhere and ended up as the head of the most radical, elected government in the history of modern Venezuela. In this The greatest achievement has been the birth of a new republic,  says Mr Chavezexclusive interview, he sets out his views on the needs of the economy and people of his country, based on the beliefs that prompted him to stage an unsuccessful military uprising in February 1992, for which he served a two-year prison sentence. Following his release, he continued to pursue his political objectives and his Fifth Republic Movement won an absolute majority at the elections in December 1998.

»You have been in power for more than two years and during that time you have introduced radical changes in Venezuela, including a new constitution based on returning the country to the principles of its founder, Simon Bolivar, and a different system of government. What do you think you have achieved?

To put it briefly, we threw out a regime that was over 50 years old and we overthrew political structures. We created a new state in a much shorter time than we had calculated in our strategic plan, and we carried out what we had offered to the people. We are going to constitute a new concept of power, which is set out in the Bolivarian Constitution.

Our greatest political achievement is the birth of a new republic. In terms of the economy, we have started up the first engines of regeneration. In the international sphere, I believe we have placed Venezuela in a position of respect, with a totally independent foreign policy, and a very clear message to the world.

»Can you tell us what the new Bolivarian Revolution, as you call it, is about?

First of all, it is a process that places the human being at the centre of attention and it is motivated by that ethical concept. It is a peaceful process – nobody has died because of the political process, nobody has been imprisoned or exiled. We have absolute freedom of the press, of thought and opinion, and we have an open and wide democratic participation.

It is not enough to have a state in which laws are abided by. Laws must generate justice because, if they don’t, they’re only useful for a few groups. To me, the most important thing is the human being. I firmly believe that I am here at the wish of most of the Venezuelan people to answer to their needs.

»How would you describe your first years in government?

It has been an accelerating process of change that, in two years, has demolished a rotten system and created a new republic. Basically, there has been reconstruction aimed at bringing happiness, social justice and equal opportunities to our people, to give them back their human rights, and to provide them with good education, healthcare, housing, land and employment.

In short, their dignity. It’s all about urgent priorities. There is a huge amount of pain that has been accumulating for years, and I can’t turn my back on it. But, at the same time, I’m thinking about large projects for both the medium and long term – investments in tourism, industry, energy and so on. I seek to be a leader and take it seriously. I don’t want to be just another president, but a leader for his people who has hope.

»What are the basic principles of your economic policy?

The model we’ve started to develop has its foundations in a diversified economy, with the aim of leaving behind our mental dependence on the oil industry, which had an imperative role in the 20th century.

Since the discovery of petroleum in the 1920s, the productive economy has been abandoned – agriculture, fisheries, the small and medium-sized companies, and the tourism sector. Now, we want to promote private investment in several areas such as agriculture, ranching, tourism and natural gas, and to diversify the energy industry.

»How do you intend to put that into practice?

We are taking legislative initiatives in order to generate a framework of judicial security that will attract these investments to this strategy of productive diversification. We are aiming at a productive economy and a policy of fiscal balance, consisting of increased public spending and increased tax collection. We decided that a percentage of all income from oil of more than $9 a barrel would go to the state Fund for Investment and Macroeconomic Stabilisation, which had previously lacked the capital to achieve its goals.

This financial year, the fund will receive about $4 billion, thanks to high oil prices, which have made the country stronger economically and increased foreign exchange reserves. All this is supported by legislation. In 1999, we passed a law on telecommunications, and look what happened there: big investments and strong competition, the installation of satellite communications, and everything has been a success. Now we are working on a new electricity sector law.

There has never been such a law. We are making plans and inviting both national and foreign capital to come and compete with the state for the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity.

»What plans do you have for the gas industry, which has largely played a secondary role to oil up to now?

We have put into effect a law for hydro-carbon gases and we are starting a bidding round for the licence to exploit natural gas. There are big reserves of gas all over the country. We would like to make the industry independent of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), and create a gas company that is not dependent on the oil business.

»Your government clearly wants foreign investment, but on what terms?

We do not want money that is in flight; that is to say, speculative money. We want people to come and invest, and of course, to make profits. We want to ensure the repatriation of those benefits and, of course, we want them to comply with the essential regulations of a capitalist system – in other words, to pay their taxes, create employment and respect the rights of the workers.

We seek a balance between capital and employment, not the trend that is being spread around the world by the neo-liberals – the so-called labour flexibility, meagre wages and elimination of social security benefits and workers’ rights. We are going to enforce these people’s rights.

»You have committed your government to developing tourism, but are evidently wary of what this has led to in other countries. What is your policy?

All sorts of things are needed here, except for natural beauty. Nature has favoured us. You get to our Caribbean coast and, within a half-hour flight, you’ll find a chain of mountains. There’s the Orinoco river just one hour from here, in the south of the country. In an hour and a half, you can get to the rainforests of the Guayana region, which is the gateway to the Amazon, with the Angel Falls, the highest in the world.

We have to create a touristic culture, which didn’t exist here before. We are now beginning to articulate a concrete plan at creating this necessary culture. There’s also a lack of infrastructure. We’re going to support tourism with the resources we have, at last. We want to support tourism based on local inns, ecological tourism as well as large infrastructures. The state, along with private investors will be responsible for promoting them.

»What were your thoughts when you were released after two years in prison?

I remember the day I came out of jail. I took off my military uniform and put on civilian clothes. It was March 26, 1994, the Saturday of Holy Week, and a journalist asked me: “What are you going to do? Where are you going?” And I told him: “We’re going into power”.

We were going into power because we already had a concept and a strategic plan that was much better defined than it had been on February 4, 1992.

»Were you surprised at the level of public support for your cause?

We won the elections six years before. In reality, we won them on the day of the military rebellion. The total breakdown of the economic and political model was evident to all. The ethics were falling down, the country was suffocating, and as a result our movement sprang up against the established order.

It had the support of about 90 per cent of the people at that time. They sensed that we, a group of young officers, were interpreting the collective feeling by rebelling against a corrupt and incompetent ruling class. Intuitively, society knew that something good was happening. During the two years we spent in prison, popular support for us kept on growing, as well as the public’s expectations and hopes.