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Is the Bolivarian Revolution still Glitter and Gold (or for leftists, Radical and Red)?

chamito del barrio

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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amiga Marisa first and foremost, thank you for you contribution. More mujeres, more people of color, and more Chicanas should be writing, posing real questions, and stirring debates. I appreciate your effort to write and debate. Nontheless throughout the article I kept waiting to hear the voice of the movement, of the Venezuelan left, or even of the working class inside Venezuela who are taking part in this experiment if not actively at least living it. I kept wondering when you would speak about the real challenge and threat Venezuela is to U.S., even without kicking out the US oil industry or doing agrarian reform (my own observations). I kept hoping that you would pose the critic along with the reality of the ongoing U.S. sponsored attempts to overthrow, the ongoing bullying and the real challenge Venezuela continues to pose even with all it’s contradictions.

    I have to some extent inquired from several people on the ground in Venezuela and here the whole issue of crime. The explanation I’ve gotten more or less is that the Chavez government has decided to pull police forces back and doesn’t want to criminalize poor people as it’s always been done, at the same time he is realizing the increasing the social welfare state is not enough and there is something much deeper that needs to be resolved and a whole new set of questions that need to be posed and answered. The theory is “if you increase the social welfare state and decrease criminalization then crime will go down. I guess is not quite that simple.

    It felt very one sided and at a certain point almost felt like a middle class critic to some extent. I am by no means an expert in Venezuelan politics or the Bolivarian revolution but feel its important to be cautious in ensuring we put in nuance into our observations, one that can hold the fact that we are inside the U.S., the single biggest imperialist force and threat to the world and also acknowledge and be self reflective about the fact that there is no “pure” left experiment that is cookie cutter, that everything is based on “time, place and conditions” and as people in the U.S., the oppressor nation we have more to learn that is positive from the third world left (which is not homogenous) then not and a tremendous responsibility to hold our ourselves, our movement and the U.S. government accountable for it’s own imperialist aggression.

    More later🙂 Gracias again.

    October 9, 2012
  2. Jeanette #

    Thank you for your post. While you have written about one of the most historical moments of the Venezuelan Revolutionary process and pointed out the need to critique the practices and theories of political processes.

    These are my concerns with your piece and potential articles that may come out in international media/blogs:

    1) using Henry Capriles Radonski, CIA sponsored and golpista from the 2002 attempted coup, as an example of someone who has shed light on the holes or inconsistencies of the revolution is incredibly dangerous and fundamentally anti-revolutionary. What it does is give power to an already counterrevolutionary block of transnational powers whose purpose is to destroy any vestiges of revolution and humanity in Venezuela.

    2) after Campana Comando Carabobo’s and Gran Polo Patriotico’s march last Thursday in favor of Chavez, while the opposition may have united to a certain extent, Chavez still has the masses support and they are not only supportive but also greatly critical of the shortcomings of the revolution (and also we have to consider people who cannot vote: adolescents under the age of 18 and recent immigrants to Venezuela from other Latin American countries like Haiti whose populations largely support the Bolivarian Revolution and come out to marches with flags and chants in support, etc.).

    And as soon as he won, people were excited and ready to continue organizing, I heard: We are going to deepen this revolutionary process over the next 6 years, rumbo al socialismo. People are aware that a lot of the opposition’s discourse has been focused on a reformist political line moving towards a supposed unity for all Venezuelans. However, this line is very similar to what has come out of post-coup Honduras under the Lobo administration for example.

    International media painted these elections as if Capriles was a strong candidate and as if there were millions of Chavistas that have lost faith in the Revolution. But, when looking at the numbers the Revolution has grown and and the uncertainty of Chavez’s or better said, the People’s victory was not a doubt but rather people have been highly concerned about what the right wing would or could still do against the Bolivarian Revoultion. For example, a fraud campaign, or attempt a coup or any other wild and crazy action that would of course be sponsored by the US government came to people’s mind as these elections came closer.

    and,

    3) The reading of people rallying around a leader or an image may not be necessarily the most accurate way of understanding the people´s relationship to Chavez. He is a symbol, he is the president and leader of the Bolivarian Process and Venezuela´s Socialist Revolution but, the achievements and the last 14 years of Venezuelan history isn´t entirely about Chavez. Not everyone admires or loves Chavez in the same way or at all, Likewise in the last comment, the people’s movements and the people’s voice, the underheard, the marginalized, the exploited and the oppressed are what we should hear more of and not necessarily the head of state.

    So,

    those are my impressions. While I appreciate and thank you for your article and opinions, I think we also must understand the weight of our words and what they mean in a US context where everything from US corporate media to the US government hopes and works toward the annihilation of people, the earth and the other worlds challenging US global hegemony.

    In light of an era of significant US intervention everywhere, we need to be much more sensitive to the language, message and material coming out about one of the most integral nations leading an anti imperialist front in the Americas today. that might sound incredibly harsh but considering the significance of Sunday´s popular victory and the amazing fight people gave, we can only stand on the side of the people and elements of this article move may incline readers away from that.

    -Jeanette

    October 10, 2012
  3. Caro #

    Camarada Marisa,

    I definitely want to start by answering your question. YES, the Bolivarian Revolution is still Glitter, but no so much Gold because the government actually tries to protect Mother Earth, Pachamama by not extracting all the precious minerals we have.

    I read the book you co-wrote for POWER and have been following the Undocubus closely. I respect your analysis and commitment to historically marginalized communities and your leadership in the struggle against capitalism. Because I respect you, and I consider you a camarada of movimientos in the US, I have to respond to your article with honesty. I also feel the need to preface my response saying that I don’t have the gift of words, as you beautifully do. I also want to identify myself so that i put my position in a specific context. I am a queer Venezuelan woman, who resides in the US since 2001, and travels back to Venezuela every year for about a month. My family continues to reside in Venezuela, in 3 different states.

    Given that the two comments above reflect part of what I was going to say, my message will focus on a couple points, although I can have a conversation with you about every line in your article. Foe example, I can easily talk about the hard place we usually are in when someone we love deeply cannot understand the big strides the Venezuelan people and Latinoamerica have made with Chavez. I also know that when we live outside of a locality or community, we can fall into a position of being over critical to make sure we are not being imbalanced, especially when we are cornered by the opposition. For example, I have met Israelis that have been affected by violence that is attributed to Palestinian groups. They are truly afraid of this violence. Should I then not support the Palestinian people? Or should I tell these Israeli individuals that what they experienced is in their imagination? Neither, the responses to each are both clear and complex.

    I am honestly very sad and disappointed that you would write an entire article discouraging people in the left of the US, who are the likely readers of your blog, from supporting Chavez, because in turn you are not supporting the Venezuelan revolution and the historically marginalized. I think it is great to point at weaknesses of any government or process or campaign so that we can strengthen it; however, everything has a time and a place. Putting out in the internet this article right before the Venezuelan elections feels irresponsible to me. Chavez says he would vote for Obama not because he fully endorses him, Chavez has in fact criticized many of his policies. However, it is strategic to support Barak because otherwise there will be even more war on the poor and even less hope for the globe. Coming out in support of politicians will always hinder or support certain strategies, and in the case of your article, it hinders the leftist international support we should be building for the Global South. Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia would have had a much harder time electing leftist presidents and implementing socialist policies if Chavez was not the president of Venezuela. And none of these countries’ social support systems even compare to Venezuela’s even today.

    I wish you had done more research about Capriles Radonski because voting for him is the same as voting for Mitt Romney. Capriles Radonski is a very wealthy neoliberalist who pretended to be center-left for this Presidential election. Imagine how beneficial Chavez has been for the entire Venezuelan population, that even a right winger capitalist had to pretend he was center-left to be able to win any kind of significant sum of votes. Chavez has been able to redirect the discourse, even of Fox-like (and funded!) “news-channel” Globovision. Te imaginas eso? Honestly, I can’t imagine that here because Fox is so unreal to me. But fortunately for organizers in Venezuela, such shift has already been seen.

    Can you imagine entire communities of low/no income folks in SF in having their own tv channels? Can you imagine the US budget needing to borrow money so they could provide more restitution and social programs for the most marginalized? Can you imagine youth who are called gang-members and criminals leading entire campaigns were they re-imagine their participation in the government? Can you imagine a president that on national tv speaks about the need to not build more prisons but rather create rehabilitation programs?(this happened a couple years ago, before Mision Vida)?

    Well mi camarada, no need to make an effort, you can go and witness all of this in Venezuela. There are so many independent and community run media producers, including tv channels, radial waves, printed media, and internet media that I can’t keep count of (i.e. Catia tv, Avila tv, Diversos No Perversos, Jaque al Macho, and more). The Venezuelan government continues listening to the needs of the people and creating and/or expanding more supportive programs every year (see a list of Misiones, for example: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misiones_bolivarianas). Leftist youth groups and collectives across the country coordinated many events and campaigns supporting Chavez and also talking about community based solutions to violence, including demands to change in discourse and stereotypes of poor youth of color as “delincuentes”. One of the most visible campaigns iscalled Otro Beta es Posible. A couple of years ago, before Mision Vida or the Presidential campaign, Chavez spoke on national tv about the need to change the prison system to re-humanize it (whats?? Paulo Freire being uttered by a head of state?). He made a call to his ministers to re-envison prisons so that they become spaces of education and supportive rehabilitation. He made a commitment to not expand prisons and to not use police repression as an strategy to end violence in Venezuela. Capriles Radonski and the Venezuelan opposition prays for more police and more police repression to end violence. Do you think the alternative will be as easy and fast as police repression? Do you think the cost of a police state is worth it?

    I would personally love to continue being in conversation with you, and I also ask you to please think strategically about the purpose of your writing. If you want to help further liberation movements in Venezuela, I can try to connect you with folks who are organizing there so that you can participate in making things better, including giving useful feedback which I know you have.

    Y como dicen por ahi, La Union Hace La Fuerza

    con respeto y solidaridad,
    caro

    October 13, 2012
  4. > #

    Odd I was just there in Venezuela and I did not meet NOT ONE HAPPy camper of the venezuelan “revolution” every single one of you has posted support for A SOON TO BE DICTATOR just because he claims TO FOLLOW a leftist movement. AM I or ANY ONE OF YOU to support someone soley ON THE “impression” that they are leftist and for the so called revolution. AND WHO IS to support the ALMOST 7 million Venezuelans WHO DID NOT FOR HIM who are NOT HAPPY with the “wanna be revolution bla bla bla of PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ” sadly enough this is not a country where 70% of the people are happy. NOT EVEN CLOSE TO 60%. So I bring you all one question to the table. Since according to most LEFTIST anyone not in support of the movement are “in middle class mentality” como dijo la PANA. SO almost 7 million Venezuelans are MIDDLE CLASS hence their discontent? Who is to support and look out for these people. AND WHAT IF they were in fact middle class. They get NO VOICE or say so? they get No fair treatment or representation solely on the fact that THEY ARE NOT poor? I find it hard to believe such educated people would follow a leader just because of what they represent and NOT on what they have and have not done. Been to Venzuela several times during the years and its sad to see how the country has detireorated to the point where basica necessities are NOT met by the wonderful HUGO CHAVEZ. I could go on and on stating facts againts or for. But I care not to do that. I care for what I said before. THE ALMOST 7 million people who voted againts him. So basically screw the 46% if the 54% are happy and content per THE polls. Is this really a revolution? a revolution of what? And who is to pay and sacrifice for the so called revolution? where exactly is this revolution taking place and when how who said? I find it more dangerous so follow something a thought a believe a potical movement what ever you wanna call it…just because in paper you all where able to check off the requiered boxes. Silly!

    November 1, 2012

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