The Party in Venezuelan Politics: Understanding the Context of the Upcoming Elections
In Caracas, politicking for the Oct. 7th election is literally a party. Marches of thousands take to the streets; the hottest commodities are the graffiti-styled Chavez campaign shirts, and on a daily basis, gigantic trucks drive through the barrios blaring salsa music and campaign slogans for their candidate on the loud speakers. (http://youtu.be/DJxLi875pSM)
From the outside, it might seem to be an election decided by who has the cooler t-shirt, or the most people in the streets: Capriles, a clean cut young man, who talks of “efficiency” while keeping the “social programs” of the revolution's past ten years, or Chavez, an outspoken leader who has led the way for gigantic structural shifts in the nation´s infrastructure and focus, with an unprecedented focus on the poorest (majority) of society. The reality, however, is that Venezuelans are fully aware that the two candidates represent radically different directions for the country, and a fear of violence by the 1% underscores the loudspeakers baseline.
Venezuelans live in a schizophrenic society, with two completely different worldviews, divided by wealth, existing within it. On one hand, the country is one of the most consumptive in Latin America, with one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/12/venezuelans-obsessed-with-beauty) rivaled only by their love of baseball. In the barrios of Caracas, however, Venezuelans watch the same soap operas glorifying perfect figures and money, while their kids play baseball with bottle caps in the street. They, too, enjoy a good party, but decades of neo-liberal economic policy have relegated them to the shantytowns.
Which is why Chavez is their favorite celebrity. He made his first public debut as a young officer on trial for a botched coup to throw out the right-wing presidency in 1992, where he vowed a-la-Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I'll be back” that it was only over “por ahorra,” (for now). (http://youtu.be/VBUo-pYeVfQ) In 1999, he broke a political stagnate that had flipped between the same two political parties for the past 50 years, by running on his own revolutionary third-party ticket, the MVR. His victory broke the traditional power block of the Venezuelan elite, and ushered in the Bolivarian Revolution.
In the past 13 years, Chavez has been elected, re-elected, survived an opposition-led recall referendum, and gracefully accepted an initial loss on his own referendum to extend term limits. All of the past election seasons have reinforced the idea that Chavez is not just a president, but a necessary bulwark pushing forward social reforms. (http://upsidedownworld.org/main/venezuela-archives-35/2889-an-assessment-of-venezuelas-bolivarian-revolution-at-twelve-years) People have associated his policies with their own sense of dignity and better living conditions, as the revolution has literally provided subsidized food for all Venezuelans, instituted free health care and education available in the barrios, and fixed dilapidated buildings so that people can live with dignity. This sense of shared struggle and identification is not based on superficial popularity: his policies are tangible.
Despite Capriles pandering to the “social reforms” of the revolution, the people have not forgotten the real intentions of the Venezuelan elite, who are his staunchest supporters. In 2002, during Chavez´s first term, the opposition attempted a botched coup, initiated by the leaders of industry, facilitated by the private media, and supported by the Bush administration. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela) It failed under a wave of popular support that occupied the palace until rank and file members of the Venezuelan military retook the palace, and Chavez was reinstalled 3 days later. When Chavez started talking about using oil funds for the Venezuelan people, rather than solely as exports for multinational coffers, the private 1% in charge of the vast majority of the country's resources shut down the ports and stopped producing oil. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2533403.stm) The workers, not the bosses, were the ones who tried to keep the factories running, breaking down the gates and refusing to stop production.
During these initial crises, Chavez became intimately associated with the revolution. He came on national television and talked to the Venezuelan people, giving them something else to watch besides soap operas. He told them if there was no Coca -Cola, to make papelon, a traditional Venezuelan drink. He broke down the issues with understandable analysis, and galvanized a collective sense of resilience. Over the course of his first presidential term, a revolution in consciousness occurred, with political education being transmitted to an entire nation, as they resisted the real-time efforts of the 1% to cripple the revolution.
At the crux of the elections on October 7, is the “rumbo” of the revolution. The question is whether a decade of social reforms will continue, or whether they will be tokenized or eulogized. It is not about bureaucracy or efficiency in the oil industry, but who that money goes to, and who the government works for. There is corruption on all fronts in politics, but there's no way Capriles, despite his campaigning, will be instituting a poor person's platform.
Bearing all of this in mind, may the best shirt win.
Popular Movements Join Hundreds of Thousands in March on Plaza Bolivar in Support of Chavez
The hills of Caracas emptied into a thousand trickles of red tshirts, hats and horns yesterday, Oct. 4Th, for the culmination of Chavez's presidential campaign. In La Vega and other barrios, community-run jeeps lined the streets to take passengers to the final event before the Oct. 7th elections, the vehicles donated to the local consejos comunales as part of the government's program to enable transportation to the hardest to reach parts of the city. Driven and managed by local community members, they descended caravan style, flying red flags, weaving their way to the center of the city.
Downtown, people slipped through traffic on motorcycle or arrived by foot to gather in sections of the city, forming unity blocks to march together. One such section was the Alianza Popular Revolucionario (APR), a national network of popular movements. They gathered beneath red and black flags at the feet of a statute of Ezekiel Zamora, and included members of the community media network ANMCLA, two campesino fronts, Movimiento Frente Campesinos Bolivar and Zamora, the workers front of SURCOS, and Sexo General Diversa, a woman and LGBTQ advocacy group. Together, they represent a diverse fellowship of political and social activists, united in their desire forpoder popular, or people power.
Members of the APR support Chavez because he has given them the space and resources to have a national impact. The premise of Venezuela's participatory democracy is the construction of popular power, or political structures that focus power on local councils and social movements. There have been countless victories for popular movements over the past decade, a recent one being the new workers rights law guaranteeing a six-month maternity leave for mothers, followed by leave for either the mother or the father, depending on the family's circumstances.
The Chavez presidency has also had positive effects in terms of national attention for popular movements within the alliance. In the past two years, groups like Sexo Genero Diverso, have had a profound influence on the consciousness of the Venezuelan people. While their success is due to their own massive education efforts utilizing art, propaganda, street campaigns, and open discussions, the support they've had through the structures of popular power under Chavez has enabled their widespread success.
On a national level, popular power has had a profound effect on community development in Venezuela. By localizing money in the lands of the consejo comunales, and investing resources in the management skills of people in the communities through trainings and project grants, the revolution is focusing on enabling its population to be self-sufficient. This, coupled with free healthcare, education, and significant support for culture and arts, is why thousands of independent-minded Venezuelans support another term for Chavez.
Throughout the first half of the morning, people filled up the three main boulevards that stretch the length of the city, and stayed until night fall. A slogan of choice was, “Are we here because we're required to be? NO!” in reference to claims that Chavez only has the support of people he somehow forces or bribes to come. While members of the APR are the first to acknowledge that the revolution must continue to deepen its practice, and that there are always things that can be done differently, they came out in force to acknowledge the revolution´s current accomplishments, and affirm their desire for another six years of popular power.