Chávez wins some, loses some-- This is why the Venezuelan conflict is so confusing: There are at least three different kinds of conflict going on, and the good guys in one or two of them are not always the good guys in the other one or two. First and most obviously to observers on the street, there's the ethnic-cum-class conflict that Amy Chua wrote about yesterday (see below, Venezuela: Privilege and ethnicity). In that one, Chávez has consistently been on the side of the pardos, the darker ones, and the humbler masses who've been excluded from the riches brought by oil from the very beginning. That makes him and his followers the good guys, in my book.
Second, there is a struggle to regain a greater share of the oil wealth for the Venezuelan nation. This has been the main objective of the oil reform Ch?vez has been insisting on. Here it's a little trickier figuring out who are the good guys. Since the so-called Oil Opening of the 1990s, the executives of the state oil company, PDVSA, have been running it almost as an autonomous enterprise, independent of the government. Given that past governments were notoriously corrupt (Pres. Carlos Andrés Pérez was a particularly conspicuous example), that wasn't altogether a bad thing; given that the PDVSA executives themselves were, if not corrupt, at least self-serving, then it wasn't such a good thing either. The net result was that very little of the oil revenue was available for development of things like infrastructure and public services that would benefit the masses of the people. On the whole, I think the Chávez backed reforms are a necessary and good thing.
Third, there is a struggle for political control, not just of PDVSA but of all the institutions. Here is where Chávez committed the "blunders" that Amy Chua and others talk about. As Luis Lander and Margarita López-Maya pointed out in an insightful article (NACLA Report on the Americas, July/August 2002), one of these blunders was signing the reform into law without extensive public debate. "This made it difficult for the common citizen to identify the competing interests involved," they write. "Further, during the three years of his administration, President Chávez has designated five different presidents of PDVSA... So the directors of the company feel insecure, unstable and ill-at-ease, and with some reason."
He finally got it right, it seems, with his sixth PDVSA president, Alí Rodríguez. But Chávez's "Bolivarian Republic" continues to waver between populist generosity and reckless bull-headedness (as seen in his relations with the Caracas mayor and police force). This is the problem with basing your political philosophy on a 200-year old military aristocrat, as I pointed out in my essay on "Bolivarian Democracy."