Venezuela's Chavez on moral crusade
By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER,
Associated Press Writer
President Hugo Chavez is on a moral crusade in Venezuela, preaching against vices from alcohol to cholesterol, vowing to curb whisky imports and ordering beer trucks off the street.
His government announced increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco on Monday, and Chavez also plans steep new taxes on luxury items such as fancy cars and artwork.
It's all part of Chavez's efforts to encourage Venezuelans to adopt the psyche of the "New Man," a socialist revolutionary with a monk-like purity of purpose. Chavez often cites the life of Cuba's iconic hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara as an ideal example — and complains that many Venezuelans' values are not up to par.
"We're one of the countries that consumes the most whisky per capita in the world. We should be ashamed," Chavez said recently on national television. "I'm not willing to continue offering dollars to import whisky in these quantities. What kind of revolution is this? The Whisky Revolution? The Hummer Revolution? No, this is a real revolution!"
Sales of both premium whisky and Hummers are booming, however, and a good number of Venezuelans are unapologetic about it. It won't be easy for Chavez to persuade his people to shed their shopping-mall materialism and hard-drinking ways.
"If I drink my bottle of whisky it's because I worked for it. I made the sacrifice and therefore I can drink whatever I want," said shopkeeper Ernesto Gonzalez, 49, who gawked at Hummers and luxury cars at an auto show in Caracas where people sipped draft beer and pina coladas on the showroom floor.
Chavez, however, has other plans. On Monday, tax agency chief Jose Vielma Mora said the government is tightening restrictions on granting dollars to companies importing liquor, especially whisky. That will force many companies to buy black-market dollars — currently trading at more than twice the official rate, to import Chivas Regal for instance, raising the price considerably.
The government also plans tax increases next week of up to 50 percent on a range of alcoholic beverages, while cigarette taxes will rise to 70 percent from 52 percent.
Chavez is also concerned that too many Venezuelans swill beer on street corners. Irked by unregulated beer sales in the slums, he has warned that beer trucks selling alcohol directly on the streets would be seized.
Anyone wanting to booze up can do so in the privacy of their own homes, he said.
"I've told the National Guard to stop and seize any truck going around selling beer in the street as if it were ice cream," he said. "This cannot be permitted."
The president has a long list of other "New Man" recommendations: don't douse foods with too much hot sauce, exercise regularly, eat low-cholesterol foods, respect speed limits. He also wants parents to stop buying Barbie dolls — and breast jobs — for their daughters.
"Now some say, 'When my daughter turns fifteen years old, we're going to give her phony breasts.' What a horrible thing! It's the latest degeneration," Chavez told one packed auditorium.
"Am I exaggerating?" he asked. "No!" the crowd responded.
Chavez sees his nation's culture corrupted by U.S.-style capitalist values. He says a new, humanist moral code is in order.
Naturally, Venezuelans are watching Chavez to see what kind of an example he sets. The former paratroop commander says he steers clear of alcohol, and would never smoke — in public.
"I really don't drink. Occasionally I smoke a cigarette, but I'll never do it in public because it's a bad example," he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "It's very sporadic. I did it during some periods."
All of his sermonizing about vices and virtues might make Chavez seem like a prudish sourpuss to some, but he also likes to party — in his own clean way.
He says he unwinds with pickup baseball games or outdoor bowling matches known as "bolas criollas." And during marathon speeches he breaks into song frequently — so often, in fact, that one aide compiled recordings of him singing on an "All Time Hits" CD, which has yet to be released to the public.
"There I am singing, but it's terrible," Chavez said.
As a former tank squadron leader, Chavez also enjoys getting behind the wheel of a Venezuelan-made Tiuna jeep, which he did in August with Hollywood star Sean Penn in tow. But he says he has no interest in Hummers or other material belongings.
Andres Medina, a 39-year-old browsing at the car show, said he agrees with Chavez, but that old habits die hard.
"Society would benefit from socialist values," he said. "But it's very difficult to change this culture."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press.