Postcard from Venezuela
"The construction of socialism in Venezuela is ratified, and now we will take charge of deepening it."
-- President Hugo Chavez, after learning the results of the November 23 elections.
Chavez's PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) won 17 of 23 governorships, approximately 60-40%. But his party lost in states with large populations and much oil, as well in the mayor's race for the crowded capital of Caracas.
Consumer-dominated societies fill spiritual voids with loud sounds and pictures: "BUY BUY BUY!"
Consumerism doesn't seem compatible with historical awareness. Young Venezuelans I met seem oblivious to their recent history. Indeed, the majority of them were barely conscious or not-yet-born when successive gangs of kleptocrats -- calling themselves political party leaders -- stole the nation's oil revenue. In 1989, under the second round of super thief President Carlos Andres Perez (a supposed socialist), repressive forces killed as many as 2,000 demonstrators on the streets of Caracas during an uprising (the "Caracazo") in response to his decision that poor Caraqueños, not his wealthy amigos, should shoulder the burden of the IMF's austerity plan for Venezuela.
Rich Venezuelans and U.S. officials shook their heads in sympathy. Poor Carlos Andres had to take desperate measures to maintain necessary order! It was unthinkable to place the burden of doing with less on those who had most.
From the early 1960s through the mid 1990s, corruption and looting characterized both Christian and Social Democratic governments. Voters, disgusted with the larcenous behavior of one regime, would elect a successive group of politicians to steal the oil wealth.
In 1998, Chavez won the presidency. He swore to end "elite" rule and redirect the country's oil wealth to education health and welfare -- to the poor.
In ten years, hundreds of thousands have received medical care, some education and primary forms of welfare. He and his allies continue to win seats in free elections, and Chavez has announced he will hold a referendum in February to ask the people to allow him to hold presidential power until 2021.
Anti-Chavez sentiment, which inspired a failed military coup in 2002, has grown smarter. Newly elected opposition governor Capriles Radonsky participated in that coup, but now he has pledged to work with Chavez's government to confront national problems. Didn't McCain say that to Obama?
The good opposition cop finds its antithesis on the radio. On 747 AM, the talk show host sounds like a Spanish-speaking Rush Limbaugh. "I hate Chavez," he screamed on December 1. Sound effects followed: gun shots reverberated as if to enhance the drama of his soliloquy on the evils of Chavismo, including 30,000 Cuban doctors who offer primary care to Venezuela's poor.
A taxi driver in Margarita, a forty minute flight from Caracas, also despised Chavez. Assuming I was a U.S. tourist, and thus logically against Chavez, he sneered at "Señor Presidente."
"Imagine, he angered the mighty United States and invited the Soviet Union or whatever they call themselves these days to bring in their warplanes and ships." Another cab driver worried about crime and expressed cynicism about the possibility Chavez could realize his socialist goals.
"Corruption in this country," said another cabbie from Margarita, "goes deep. The cop in the street to cabinet Ministers to the President's family (referring to rumors of close Chavez relatives getting business favors in the state of Barinas)."
I look out the window at Margarita, a tropical island, once a perfect picture postcard, with brooding mountains, flapping palm trees, warm ocean water and tropical birds. Then came the developers who must have hired an evil teenager with acne of the soul to design the architecture. The rows of high-rise condo blocks should make Frank Lloyd Wright turn in his grave. Billboards carry gaudy ads for Digitel. Posters of busty young women in skimpy bras and dental floss bottoms urge: "buy." Those who "need" a second or third home -- including foreigners -- purchase condos.
"How does one go about building socialism here?" I ask my friend who lives in Caracas.
We see the obstacles dramatically on the downtown streets of Venezuela's teeming capital (4-5 million estimated), with wall-to-wall traffic twelve hours a day, spewing pollution and noise. For $2, a Venezuelan can fill his gas tank. How does one ban cars and shopping in downtown Caracas and expect to get reelected?
From a jammed McDonald's in Chacaito we see masses of humanity, resembling Asian cities, pushing and shoving en route to shopping. Behind downtown, situated in a long valley, lie the barrios, etched into the surrounding hills. In these slums live Venezuela's poor majority, Chavez supporters. They received little from the oil-rich governments of the past. Chavez has put back some of the wealth in the form of medical, educational and basic welfare programs. Cuban doctors have built modular clinics and members of literacy brigades have offered basic education in the poorest areas -- free of charge. In addition, the Chavez government has offered healthy meals to the most down-trodden.
Unlike his mentor in the socialist island to the south, Chavez won power through the ballot box, not guerrilla war. Fidel Castro exported his enemies, with, ironically, U.S. cooperation. Why not? In 1960, the powerful in Washington and the wealthy exiles biding their time in Miami, believed they could dispatch Castro and the revolution without even sending in U.S. troops. In April 1961, the new President, John F. Kennedy, discovered their mistake when the CIA's exile force fell to Cuba's fledgling army at the Bay of Pigs.
As W prepares his exit, Castro remains vital in his new career as a writer (La Paz en Colombia, published in November). However, Chavez cannot export his enemies. Venezuela's elite and the U.S. government learned that lesson after 50 frustrating years of trying to overthrow the Cuban revolution from Miami.
An organized opposition makes political noise especially through elections -- charges and counter charges, TV, radio and billboard ads. Imagine if Cuba's revolutionaries would have had to transform the island's economic and social structure with the presence of one million vocal opponents! Fidel had to deal with an angry Washington, but not with the daily stings and bites of his own wealthy classes who would pay for newspaper, TV and radio assaults and mount an international gossip network to demonize him.
Hugo Chavez's socialist vision has emerged amidst a collapsing environment and world economy, in a country whose outward culture reeks of the worst of consumerism: maddening sounds of car horns, traffic jams, playing to the pounding of reggaetón reverberating over car and public speakers. Caracas reeks with dangerous anarchy -- vast areas of poverty amidst the unshared wealth of a small minority. Consumption has become the spiritual value of capitalism: obsession with the superficial (Venezuela supposedly leads the world in number of boob jobs per capita).
Venezuela is still very much capitalist, not socialist. Chavez has learned in 10 years as President that change does not come easily through legislatures and courts when wealthy opposition politicians also use the media to help provide a formidable obstacle course to a just distribution of wealth.
Chavez lacks a large disciplined cadre to carry out his policies, a seasoned political party of people dedicated to doing nothing in life but work to change the course of their nation's history.
"Oil in the hands of corrupt governments has corrupted this place," says Jesus Marrero, who in 1973 underwent brutal torture supervised by Commissar Basilio. "He was obviously a big shot in Venezuelan intelligence circles (DISIP)." Marrero belonged to the Insurrectional Revolutionary Movement (MIR). "This man [Basilio] radiating cold cynicism" supervised sessions for months in which his men applied electric shocks to Marrero's ears, testicles and penis.
"I escaped from prison in 1975," he said, "and rejoined my comrades in the mountains. In October 1976, we saw the newspaper report on the bombing of a Cuban airliner in mid air killing everyone on board. The newspaper photo was none other than Basilio, identified as Luis Posada Carriles."
Marrero wants to testify against Posada "as soon as Obama realizes this man is a real terrorist, unlike the Cuban Five (referring to five Cuban intelligence agents who provided material to the FBI on Cuban exile terrorism in Miami and got arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in federal penitentiaries)."
Marrero says Venezuela faces an awesome challenge. But "Chavez has illuminated the healthy road and we must overcome the garbage that clutters our minds and on our streets and work for justice and equality in a green world." I nod. He has maintained revolutionary zeal through decades of exile in Mexico.
In 1998, he returned to work toward the same vision that enticed him to become a revolutionary forty years earlier. He helps bring solar energy to remote rural areas, to use the sun's heat to make potable water and other necessities. If Chavez wins the referendum to continue until 2021, thousands more could join Marrero in his attempt to bring clean energy to the needy.
Saul Landau received the Bernardo O'Higgins award from the Republic of Chile for his work on human rights.