In Caracas: Memory and Media Circus as Campaigning Ends...
It has been an interesting night and day. I have spent a substantial portion of the past 24 hours listening to Chavez speak. The man speaks a lot. But let me explain.
My interest in Venezuela started with my interest and work on Colombia. It seemed to me like the two countries, linked historically in so many ways, were living completely different histories today. I remember the coup in April 2002 in Venezuela and a moment when I thought Venezuela was going to go that same route -- of paramilitarism, of neoliberalism based on massacre and assassination. But over the past two years Venezuelans have beaten repeated attempts at plunging them into that kind of future.
But yesterday I learned that I had overlooked something else -- that that history of murderous counterinsurgency is very much a part of Venezuela´s own history. Last night, at the Complejo Cultural Teatro Teresa Carreno (which is a theatre built for the rich for their own use), there was a really moving event. An auditorium of well over a thousand people, mostly young people, students -- real people, not elites -- came to a launch of the fourth edition of a book by a journalist who is now the Vice President of Venezuela, Jose Vicente Rangel. The book, ´Expediente Negra´, is an investigation of human rights violations committed during the years of "democracy" here in Venezuela. There was a guerrilla insurgency here, in the 1960s and 1970s, and it, like so much else, was repressed savagely -- the whole gambit of disappearances, massacres, assassinations. One President held publicly to the dictum of "shoot first, find out later".
In addition to the strangeness of an elite theatre filled with people, the event itself was quite dignified, I thought. It would have been easy to do wrong: to turn an event that was a kind of commemoration into a way of scoring political points. But -- and this is not to deny that political points were scored -- the dead were honoured. Several family members of the disappeared spoke, and told their stories. There were cultural events, musical groups in between the speeches. And yes, there was Chavez, on the screen and in person.
The theme of the evening was "recovering memory" ("recuperar" in spanish has a deeper meaning than recovery in english). The disappeared were shown on screen. Their families held up their pictures. Their names were named (Alberto Lovera, Alejandro Tejero, Andres y Jose Ramon Pasquier, Jose Carmelo Mendoza, Luis Alberto Hernandez... and on and on). A famous musician of the era, Ali Primera, has a song, based on something a famous priest said during a service for one of the dead decades ago -- "Those who die for life, cannot be called dead" (again, something is lost in the translation but you get the idea). The photos were shown in a montage, to the music of Ali Primera.
What was the political point of all this? Well, at the beginning of this note I said that my initial interest in Venezuela was not that of someone looking for the authentic revolution or the next revolutionary fashion -- it was, instead, a kind of fear of a situation that was close to the brink, with paramilitaries sharpening their knives and waiting for their chance to restore neoliberalism. I thought of Colombia -- but Venezuelans have their own, living memories of all this. And it only made sense for Chavez's people to want to remind Venezuelans of what came before. Chavez does not do disappearances, torture, and massacres, though they accuse him of being a dictator. Venezuelans know this. And many of the people in the opposition are people who did participate in all this. So the cry, "no volveran!" (they will not return!)
The evening ended with a lot of Chavez. First, Luis Britto, one of the old generation of leftists who is part of the government, showed some interesting videos. To those who accuse us of censorship, he said, let me remind you of this freedom of press. He then showed two videos of the current vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, who was in the 1990s a TV personality, trying to interview Chavez, who was in jail after trying to overthrow the regime in a coup in 1992. Both times, the interviews were censored, in a very crude way -- a big red "CENSURADO" sign was pasted on Chavez´s face and the attempt ended.
But then, Britto showed a video of a very long interview Rangel did with Chavez two days before Chavez won the elections of 1998. That was an interesting interview -- good questions, good answers. Rangel asked about power -- they say you are a man who wants power, Chavez... why? Power for what? Chavez said, power isn't like a glass of water you pick up -- it is something you build... I want to build a new kind of power, democratic power, popular power.
After the long interview, Chavez got up to speak himself. "I will be brief", he began, and he was -- he only talked for an hour. He told a story of when he was in the army, and how he witnessed the torture of two campesinos where he was posted as a young sub-lieutenant in the 1970s. He tried, and failed, to stop it, but decided then that he had to do something. There were more stories, too, all trying to return to the point that all those who died fighting for change did not die in vain, that today´s process is built on their sacrifices.
And talks some more...
Then, this morning, I did what any good journalist should do once in a lifetime -- I went to a mainstream press conference at the Presidential palace! Now that was a genuine media circus. Several hundred people, from mainstream media all over Latin America, Europe, and some of our friends from the United States as well. Indeed, Venezuela´s good friend Juan Forero (read his NYT reports on Colombia and Venezuela if you have a strong stomach) was sitting just a couple of seats from me. I got to watch him school another American journalist about all the money that Chavez is spending on frivolous things like education, health care, and Argentine beef. I got to watch him elbow that same American journalist and chuckle when Chavez mentioned how infallible the new voting system and voting machines were (that gave me a bit of the chills, actually, especially after getting a chance to read Greg Palast´s latest... do they know something we don´t? All sides here seem to like the machines. Is that not a sure sign something is wrong?)
The American journalists (you can probably read more about this on Narconews -- there was a solid Narconews team there today) projected this air of world-weariness, cynicism, and wisdom to the ways of overblown politicians. That attitude was striking, considering how little wisdom or doubt they exhibit when dealing with their own government. But not, perhaps, surprising.
At any rate, Chavez hit his usual notes in the press conference: Latin American integration, opposition to neoliberalism, the likely overwhelming victory in the referendum, the readiness and preparation for any 'irregularities', the long history of US destabilization (mentioning Chile many times) in the region.
My two favourite quotes from the press conference were the following. First, when asked about what he hopes for from the US, he said -- "we could hope for a lot. What couldn´t we accomplish with the US on our side? What couldn´t we accomplish in fighting poverty, fighting for education, for health care, for literacy in the neighbourhoods? What couldn't we accomplish for all of the Americas, or for the whole world? I would be the first one to ally with the United States for something like that. But we cannot hope for anything like that. I read this morning that the US is about to take Najaf. Instead of withdrawing from Iraq, as Spain did, in a very dignified way, as other Latin American countries did, they are making this terrible mistake, with its terrible consequences, even worse." He reminded the audience that Venezuela always opposed and continues to oppose the war in Iraq. And he reminded those present that the reason the price of oil is climbing is because of that war, in part.
My other favourite quote was about the CIA itself. When asked about the CIA, he said: "You know, it is like James Bond. Now, I love James Bond. I think the Sean Connery James Bond movies are irreplaceable. But James Bond is not as cool now as he was." (this is fairly loose translation, forgive me) "Look at Dracula! Is the new Dracula as scary as Bela Lugosi´s Dracula? Superman? Even Batman, he's not scary any more, and neither is Robin! The same is true of the CIA. We, a third world, underdeveloped country, we have taped the CIA giving classes here in Venezuela -- that is, we have infiltrated them. I've called the US Embassy to ask them to stop trying to infiltrate our military -- I know the military, when something is going on, they tell me..." When asked if the US would try to destabilize Venezuela, he said they probably would. "But they will fail, again and again."
Let´s make a deal?
On the streets tonight, there are demonstrations. One of the opposition, the 'Si' camp, which by the private TV networks looks like it has hundreds of thousands (check out venezuelanalysis.com for last Sunday's 'No' march photos). And another, a street party at the palace, of the 'No'. You see, there is no campaigning allowed on Friday and Saturday -- so this is the last night to publicly campaign (we will see how this rule is bent or broken tomorrow...) I am in the wrong place, writing when I should be on the street. But, I should mention the one thing that the mainstream media are likely to pick up about Chavez's speech today.
There was a tone of wanting to play ball: Chavez mentioned the pipeline deal with Uribe. He quoted from many mainstream Wall Street journalists and analysts who predicted chaos, and who predicted that a Chavez victory would bring stability to the markets which the markets, especially the oil markets, need right now, whereas the opposition has no plan and no idea how to govern the country. In the midst of some very solid talk about Latin American integration, the irreversible changes to the constitution and in terms of land reform, housing, education, health, that have been mobilizing and democratizing forces, there was also this sense, that the government could work with the multinationals, work on the megaprojects, and cooperate in some areas. I imagine the mainstream media will seize on this.
The next days of non-campaigning promise to be interesting. Maybe a chance to get out of the media zone and talk to some people...