Is the Bolivarian Revolution still Glitter and Gold (or for leftists, Radical and Red)?
One month prior to the election in the United States, another will take place, with a photo finish and big implications. On October 7th a President will be elected in Venezuela, with the incumbent President Hugo Chavez Frias and the upstart challenger, Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski facing off. Recently President Chavez said that if he could vote in the US he would vote for Barack Obama. If I had a vote in Venezuela, I cannot say that I would vote for him in this election.
After visiting twice in 2005 I was excited by what I saw, especially the social missions created to tackle problems of unemployment, lack of decent housing, access to health care, education. For me, Chavez was a unique voice in the hemisphere, in a post 9/11 climate during eight years of Bush. He was boisterous, shrewd and relentless in a time when so many others in the region remained silent. He named President Bush ‘Mr. Danger’ in ridicule. He visited the people of the Bronx after speaking at the United Nations in New York and offered support to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as they were left neglected by their own government. He sought to create counter-hegemony to the neo liberal lunacy of US policy in the region.
His character, su manera de ser, provokes reaction. You love him or hate him. However it was the changes he enacted that set off fierce debate and a heated political divide in Venezuela. This makes it difficult to find information that isn’t dripping with partisanship, in favor of Chavez or the opposition. Its even been a hot topic in my own home, as my partner is Venezuelan. And not a fan of Chavez.
Many times we would have the conversation, and I found myself on some sort of political cruise control; not fully listening and neatly categorizing her words into my very basic, black and white political paradigms. So maybe it’s because it’s how I like to roll politically, or how I like to roll in a relationship but I decided to look closer and be open.
And from what I see, recognizing my context is limited, all that glittered to me as a leftist in Venezuela back then is not looking so revolutionary today. Below I will explain my reasons, but at the core I hold that loyalty should lie with the well-being and desires of the people, not necessarily a leader or politician, no matter how radical he or she sounds.
Eyes Off the Ball Chavez has been in power for almost 14 years now. There have been advances on many fronts. Poverty has decreased, higher education is more attainable, new homes and neighborhood clinics built; billions have been invested in social programs to more equally distribute resources in the country. What seems to be a growing challenge is, put in baseball terms, that the government has taken its eye off the ball, in several areas. This has become a weakness exposed by the campaign of Henrique Capriles. Infrastructure is one, some examples being a recent collapse of a bridge in the state of Miranda, an explosion at an oil refinery in Amuay due to neglect, rolling blackouts due to a poor electrical grid, in August more than two dozen people died in riot at an overcrowded prison. The missions are another, in vastly different states of development, some maintaining and many fallen apart. The repeated cause of failure are mismanagement and inefficiency. And lines, lines at hospitals and low-cost grocery stores are becoming a daily ritual for many Venezolanos.
Then there is perhaps the Achilles heel. Violence. Heard of the violence of Mexico’s drug war? Venezuela’s crime rate is more than three times larger. It is unfair to lay the blame completely on President Chavez. The problem of crime is complicated and cannot be solved overnight. At the same time, the direct response has been slow, especially given the crime rate has risen steadily over the last decade. It seems that the initial assessment of the government was that the violence was a manifestation of the class struggle. If this is true, I ask myself how I would feel if I or my family was impacted by violence. Another argument made is that the problem stems from inequality and corruption of police. If this is so, and crime has gone up, are we to surmise that inequality has as well? Something doesn’t add up. Regardless of the root cause, its a huge concern for Venezolanos of all economic classes and it has the power to flip the election. It has been a cornerstone of the Capriles campaign’s program. Last month the government announced a new program, Vida Venezuela which will take steps towards compensation for victims of crime, creating systems for conflict resolution and to transform the justice and prison system. A holistic plan, but two months before a close election. Whether it is too little too late, time will tell.
Eggs in One Basket Earlier this year my partner’s family traveled from Venezuela for a visit. It was a basic lesson in inflation, as her mom had me dizzy with the difference of prices. Inflation is currently about 18% in Venezuela. When we would go shopping they were blown away by how cheap everything was. I was genuinely surprised, and didn’t understand. When I’ve gone to Mexico things always seemed cheaper. ‘Look at these jeans’, she would hold them up, examining the thread and cut, ‘these easily cost $300 in Venezuela.’ From jeans down to food, to electronics, tools, the list went on. Because these products aren’t available and are needed, people travel to the US and buy stuff here and return to sell it there. At the same time, the informal market to purchase dollars expands as the government tries to restrict it.
The economies of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Argentina have all expanded more than that of Venezuela’s over the last period. Despite having the most confirmed oil reserves in the world, Venezuela remains outperformed economically by all the nations of OPEC with the exception of Libya. Over the last 13 years the price of oil has brought hundreds of billions of dollars into Venezuela. Why is it that in this time the country is still borrowing money from other countries, 36 billion alone from China? Oil is 95% of Venezuela’s exports, all its eggs in one basket. What would happen if the price of oil dropped? Is this model sustainable?
Cronyismo and Leadership for the 21st Century Corruption. It is not only a problem in Venezuela, and it’s not a right or a left problem. But wherever it exists in a large-scale, it is damning. The last time I was in Venezuela, seeing the popularity of Chavez and how his party’s membership was exploding I thought, this is a train to ride. Anyone can claim to have political agreement and get in the club. And in a volatile political climate its easy to imagine a basic thing happening. Loyalty is compensated, and difference is damned. This leads to and ferments corruption. The political polarization has created the conditions for unequal distribution of resources not based on need, but on political unity. When looking back at the inefficiency of social programs, the inability to tackle to problem of crime, the mismanagement of the economy – these are the costs of putting loyalty ahead of qualifications. After 13 years, instead of having cadre positioned to advance areas of government to expand democracy, Venezuela has cronies.
Chavez has long promoted the idea of creating a brand of Socialism for the 21st century. But I ask myself, what is 21st century of building a movement around one charismatic leader, holding and centralizing power? The reality is that we have 18th century problems in a 21st century context, and an iron fist and my way or the highway does not represent an innovation on leadership. After 13 years, Chavez remains the lynchpin. Perhaps this was needed at a given moment, a great communicator to mobilize people around popular demands. Today the country may have different needs.
My worldview remains intact. But I would rather not operate on cruise control. What I’m most interested in is understanding and untangling complexity in politics, organizing and in societal change. Not all countries political paradigms mirror that of the United States, and they are not necessarily dictated by this country either. I think that’s a common error we make. Mass consciousness is very different in other countries, the political spectrum is not simply transferable from place to place. Meaning right and left don’t always mean the exact same thing, and the in between those two poles exists a lot of space where many opinions lie. These are important factors to consider when forming an opinion about politics of another place.
Political debate is alive and well in Venezuela. Apathy is something no one can afford. One thing that is true, the voice and votes of those who were marginalized can no longer be ignored. The idea that in a nation rich in resources, those resources should be allocated towards the benefit of the people is a standard starting point, the question now is how.
And what of Radonski? Perhaps if these ideas have sparked your curiosity you’ll investigate a little more. I guess in the end, that is the point. One thing is for certain, he’s posed the most serious challenge to Chavez since he first rode to victory in 1998. What else is certain, Chavez remains a heavyweight champ. And everyone knows, to take out the reining champ, you’ve got to knock him out. And as the people brought him back several times over, it will be Venezolanos who will and should decide who remains standing this October. That’s the beautiful thing, in the Venezuela of today, el pueblo‘s got punching power.