Saturday, October 13, 2007

Beating a Dead Horse

I know, I know, I keep bringing this up, but new examples keep poping up.

In the US and elsewhere, Chávez is often depicted as a manipulative and paranoid 'populist.' The idea here is that he follows a familiar pattern of social spending and antagonistic (though baseless) rhetoric. According to this analysis, Chávez has been so effective in uniting a solid majority of the population in large part through constituting 'the people' as opposed to 'the oligarchy' (Venezuelan old money) and 'the Empire' (the United States). He then ostensibly tells 'the people' that they are perpetually under attack from these looming and united dangers. Hence anything he does is justified.

Which, our friends in the State Department and the New York Times tell us, is hogwash. The sentiment is repeated ad nauseum by oppos here in Venezuela, who constantly chant 'We're not coup-mongers, we're (insert issue or identity group here)"

Unfortunately for them, however, they keep shoving their feet in their mouth.

Example du jour: Manuel Rosales, of Un Nuevo Tiempo and governor of Zulia (richest state in VZ) fame, is in Washington D.C. holding meetings with Thomas Shannon (assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs), asking for the US to 'exert international pressure against the constitutional reform in Venezuela."

I mean, seriously, it really seems like the oppos here WANT to fail.

Either that, or maybe that Chávez guy isn't so crazy for thinking the interests of the rich and of the US government are working against him...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

and i'm off...

...seeing as how i'm a no good,shiftless, unemployed freeloader layabout, i'm going to take a va-cay.
i'll be back from trinidad in a week to ten days, hopefully with my position on the 2010 world cup team cemented and some dish on what Venezuela's neighbors think about the BoRev.
(okay, birchill i'm not, but if that cracker can make the TT team, who's to say i can't?)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Make Abortion Safe and Legal in Venezuela (...and everywhere)

(poster from a successful Mexico City campaign to legalize abortion)

Yesterday in Plaza Bolívar, just off of the Asemblea Nacional, a group of pro-choice activists called attention to a glaring gap in the advances made by the Bolivarian Revolution. Despite one of the more progressive Constitutions of recent vintage, the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela does not include among the rights of women the right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to full term. In fact, in the Latin America and the Caribbean, abortion is legal only in Mexico City, Cuba and Guyana.

The assembled activists ask the government to add to the Reforma proposed by President Chávez changes to Articles 76 and 84 of the constitution. In the current constitution, article 76 guarantees the rights of both parents regardless of their marital status to their children. It also guarantees parents the right to decide for themselves the size of their families, and obliges the state to provide pre and post-natal care. Activists would amend the article to “recognize the right of women to voluntarily interrupt their pregnancy for reasons of physical or mental health and in the case of rape, congenital birth defects, hereditary illnesses, or in the case when the parents do not have the economic capacity to guarantee the development of the child.” Finally, they would mandate that abortions be timely and performed without any form of discrimination against the women in question.

Article 84 currently obliges the state to provide a national health care system in order to care for the body politic. Proposed changes here would include attention to sexual and reproductive health. Furthermore, they would make family planning, reproductive health and contraception usage subjects to be included in the national educational system.

In other words, much like Chávez’s own reforms, the reforms sought by these activists seek to push the potentials of the 1999 constitution further in their intended direction.

In Venezuela just as anywhere else, abortion is just as much about class and race as it is about the rights of women to control their own bodies. One activist remarked “Rich women get abortions in private clinics, or go abroad, while the poor have them in their houses or in clandestine locations where they use complicated or unsafe methods.”

The lack of legal status makes official statistics for the consequences of clandestine abortions hard to come by. However, one central Caracas maternity hospital reports that annually 24 young women (between the ages of 16 and 24) arrive with complications arising from illegal abortions.

Of those 24, 20 die.

This is clearly a place where the creativity and leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution is in need. The current policy, even more outdated than the 4th Republic, only serves to reinforce lines of class privilege. Keeping abortion illegal keeps the lives of poor women of lesser value than those of the rich. It reinforces a capitalist cultural perrogative that money is the final arbiter of ability. Furthermore, it treats women who have neither resources nor health to carry a pregnancy to term as penalized individuals -- that is, as liberal subjects of the old order rather than as the new protagonists of a developing collective creating not only a new society, but a new form of sociality based on equality and solidarity rather than competition and exclusion.

And until this situation is rectified, the Bolivarian Revolution will always be incomplete.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Accion Democratica and 'the good old days'

Caracas in general is covered in some rather incredible political graffiti from all sides of the political spectrum. When I have access to a faster internet connection, I’ll post a collection of the photos I’ve taken throughout my time here.
(the painted text reads, more or less, 'away with the reform' -- referencing the recent flotilla of 33 reforms to the 1999 constitution announced by president Chávez.)(The stencils read: 'The time has come' and the images on the wheat-pasted flyers are of Romúlo Betancourt)
As of late, however, ‘AD’ agitprop has been fairly ubiquitous. ‘AD’ of course refers to Acción Democrática, one of the two parties which made up the ‘Puntofijismo’ system of Venezuela’s 30 some year long ‘exceptional’ democracy. Within social science and ‘latin americanist’ area-studies circles in the US, Venezuela was until slightly before the 1997 elections considered to be the only stable democracy in a troubled region. Colombia and Peru had their civil wars, southern-cone states like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile had their notorious dictatorships. Bolivia and Ecuador, both politically unstable, were poster children for the extreme poverty of the region.

Venezuela was seen as ‘special’ because since the fall of the Marcos Peréz Jimenéz on January 23, 1958, there had been BOTH relatively uninterrupted economic growth AND ‘smooth’ democratic transitions between presidents of different political parties. The details of this era of ‘exceptional’ democracy in Venezuela, however, make it look more like an oligarchic dictatorship which engaged in democratic theater than the ‘democracy with adjectives’ of political scientists in the north.

(The former view has prevailed among most in Venezuela since the 1990s, whereas the notion of ‘democracy with adjectives’ – ‘pacted,’ ‘partial,’ ‘incomplete,’ ‘formal,’ and so forth – continues to spawn cottage industries among political scientists in US academia.)

The upsurge of AD graffiti has been occasioned by the party’s 66th anniversary, but it also dovetails with a few other undercurrents circulating today throughout Venezuelan society. The first has to do with the euphoria of the current oil boom, which has some rich Venezuelans longing for the AD presidency of Carlos Andrés Peréz (his first time in Miraflores), when many though one had to ‘try NOT to make money’ here. The difference between this oil boom and that of the 1970s is that this time money is being invested in social programs and infrastructural development rather than financing the artificial boom of a cultural and economic elite.

The second has to do with the (opposition) perception that the current polarization of Venezuelan society requires the ‘return of sanity’ and the mediation of a wise leader. Such a position is of course like the image of two people fighting in the street, all the while shouting one at the other ‘you must see reason and stop fighting!’ while doing nothing themselves to cease hostilities. Such is, of course, the necessary line to take according to the protocol of a respectable representative liberal democracy – use the façade of political cordiality to obscure the raw brutality of class domination. Bolivarians are on the other hand on the whole concerned either with consolidating their power (especially so for the moderate sectors of the movement) or pressing the potentials of 21st century Socialism evermore deeper and more radical. The opposition position of course idealizes its own past, however, in that it fails to recognize the key role the military has always played in the rise to political and economic power of the national bourgeoisie. Today, the military is all but completely aligned with the Bolivarian revolution.

Such can explain the choice of Romúlo Betancourt in the commemorative graffiti accompanied by the exhortation “Countrymen: The Time has come.” This choice is perhaps also forced upon them in that Andrés Peréz is now more associated with his second presidency [1989-1993]. During this second time in office he imposed a harsh neoliberal adjustment package, sent the military into the streets to bloodily repress the popular uprising in response to it (the infamous ‘Caracazo’ of February 1989), and was ultimately impeached for corruption in 1993. He left in his aftermath a completely decimated political scene and would be the last AD politician to be elected president. Since an association of AD’s with the opulence of an oil boom is all but out of the picture, the party hopes to align itself with the ostensible return of stability and democratic calm to the country.) However, a look back at AD’s actual history, as well as that of the Puntofijismo system it inaugurated, might make them reticent to encourage such associations.

The Strange ‘Democratic’ Prehistory of ‘Puntofijismo’

In 1935, Juan Vicente Gomez, president of Venezuela since 1908, died in his sleep of natural causes. His rule saw the beginning and intensification of Venezuela’s shift from an agro-export based economy (largely coffee and sugar) to a petrol-producing state. It also brought about the end of nearly a century of civil war and local caudillo politics through the rationalization and centralization of rule in Venezuela and, perhaps paradoxically, the identification of political power with the figure of the president. Gomez accomplished all of this through a rather iron-fisted approach to domestic politics, banning political parties, assassinating or exiling opponents, and carefully controlling access to oil concessions and other key aspects of the developing economy.

Another decade of rule by the military followed his death until a group of development-minded young officers led by Marcos Peréz Jiménez overthrew his second successor, Isaías Medina Angarita. The junta then installed Romúlo Betancourt (who founded Acción Democratica in 1941 along with other members of the so-called ‘Generation of 28’) as president. AD was a rather attractive choice for the officers, in that its version of ‘social democracy’ was limited to the formal-institutionalization of the Venezuelan state and did not extend to the social reforms proposed by such groups as the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). In other words, AD promised both to ‘modernize’ state institutions within the bounds of contemporary liberal democracy while containing the potentially destabilizing effects of social reformers such as the PCV. (Indeed, Betancourt would continue to outdo himself in his demand that AD – a member of the socialist international to this day – distance itself from and marginalize ‘radical’ elements such as the PCV).

Betancourt led the junta until 1948, at which time his teacher, the author Romúlo Gallegos, was elected president by a landslide. However, by the time of the so-called ‘telephone coup’ which saw him deposed NINE MONTHS LATER, nary a person took to the streets to defend Venezuelan democracy. When the exiled AD leadership called for its unions to lead a general strike the following year, the military junta easily crushed the sparsely attended events and declared all AD-affiliated unions as illegal as the party with which they were associated.

How could this have been?

Put simply, AD’s three years in power saw them use the office of the presidency not to extend Venezuelan democracy nor to ‘modernize’ the state apparatus, but rather to turn Venezuela into a single party state. It consolidated its control of trade unions in the burgeoning oil sector, tempered the potential unpopularity of limiting constitutional rights and guarantees with handouts from oil profits and made a constitutional institution of the presidential appointment of governors and mayors (which is ironic, given this is precisely what many ADecos (erroneously) accuse Chávez of doing with his proposed constitutional reforms today) – among other examples. In other words, AD used its first three years of executive power to build itself as a party, and subordinated the mobilization and ‘development’ of the population to this end. It furthermore ‘did not play well with others,’ doing all it could to keep other parties such as COPEI and the CPV as far from power as possible.

Romúlo Betancourt was the chief architect of this process.

As it built itself as a party, AD also managed to alienate significant power brokers in Venezuelan society – such as the Catholic Church and rural landowners. This did not sit well with the military officers who installed AD into power with the promise of returning ‘decency’ and ‘patriotism’ to the country. In other words, the 1948 coup as well as the lack of any substantive resistance thereto was made possible by the cynicism AD’s behavior inspired vis-à-vis ‘democracy’ among Venezuelans.

‘Puntofijo’On the 23rd of January, 1958 Marcos Peréz Jiménez was overthrown by what Fernando Coronil describes as
“neither a traditional military coup nor a mass uprising from below. Rather it was, in a peculiar but real way, the crystallization of collective discontent – from different classes, sectors, and bulwarks of power, including the military – against the increasingly arbitrary and personal rule of Pérez Jiménez. Peculiar, because these groups had not participated in common struggles and were not linked by interdependent sectoral interests. Real, because they were nevertheless united in their opposition to an unresponsive government and shared an interest in a state that would use the nation’s fiscal resources on their behalf. Despite their sharp economic and ideological differences, these groups formed a community of interests and ideals on the basis of a shared orientation toward the state as the main source of collective and individual welfare.”
In October of that year, the ‘Puntofijo’ pact (named for the house was owned by COPEI founder Rafael Caldera in which it was signed) was signed between representatives of AD, COPEI and the URD (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente –Christian Democratic—and Unión Republicana Democratica – slightly to the left of AD, a Social Democratic party—respectively. By 1960 URD quit the pact). ‘Puntofijo’ was necessitated by the excessive sectarianism of AD’s first three years in power. All it really amounted to, however, was an extension of who was allowed to participate in the same old scheme. Puntofijo consisted in
1. The exclusion of the Communist party from Venezuelan politics;
2. An agreement among the signatories to respect the constitutionality of elections (i.e. not to take part in the military adventurism that defined the political past of Venezuela); 3. An agreement to rule through national unity governments. That is to say, not to exclude absolutely the parties which lost elections;
4. An agreement to establish – before any election – an accord of minimum agreement among the contestants.

In other words, Puntofijo extended the single-party rule of AD’s idyllic first triennium into a two-party rule that would last until 1993. As with any such arrangement, the democratic potential of any election or other institutionally-minded reform was always already neutered. It guaranteed that any change in government would not bring about significant changes in policy or policy-orientation, nor in the socio-political ‘status quo’ – an agreement as mutually beneficial to all the signatories as it was harmful to the majority of Venezuelans.

In this way, Puntofijo offered a democratic-veneer to the authoritarian system it ostensibly replaced. Its record of economic mishandling (I am not the first to wonder how a country that “during the oil boom of the midseventies…obtained more dollars from its oil exports than those given to all European nations by the Marshall Plan” could by 1995 have “the highest inflation and lowest growth rate in Latin America.”), nepotism and clientelism doomed it to failure almost from the outset. What is amazing is that it lasted as long as it did.

AD will always be associated with this order. Romúlo Betancourt was the first president elected under this scheme as well as one of its principle architects. Carlos Andrés Peréz was the last (but more on Andrés Peréz in another post). The excesses of the former during the first AD triennium brought about the ‘hiatus’ of the Marcos Peréz Jiménez dictatorship. The neoliberal reforms of the latter brought about the deaths of the Caracazo and the political and economic chaos of the 1990s. Worse, for opposition politicos and constituents, Andrés Peréz made the Bolivarian Revolution not only possible, he made it necessary.

Today again

I would like to return to the commemorative graffiti I encountered earlier today.The composition of the agitprop is ambiguous in temporal and spatial terms, confusing the orientation of both the message and the party it represents in a cacophony of symbols and referents.

First, we have Betancourt in the background, mid-sentence, gazing with a sort of certainty into the future. In this sense Betancourt – as well as the party and the legacy which he represents – is ready and waiting to return, uninterrupted, to bring a ‘better’ future to Venezuela. In this sense, ‘the time has come’ signals the ostensible ripeness of this particular political conjuncture for AD’s return.

However, the black and white of the image conjures a sense of return more than it does a time to move forward. In this sense, the image refers to the return to a past when AD’s constituency held control over economic and political power in Venezuela. In this sense it directly addresses the personal economic and social interests of the observer. If the viewer is an ADeco, or of the class position to make them potentially so, it signals their personal return to power and ‘stable’ prosperity. It promises the return to a ‘simpler’ time in which AD guaranteed 'stability' and a clear path to the future.

However again, the party’s shield is the only vibrantly-colored aspect of the image, in the blue-yellow-and red of the national flag. Its contrast to the black and white of image and text suggest that the party is both of the past and of the future, that it is in effect a force of both ‘modernization’ and all that was good about a bygone era. This visual content is reinforced by the stately bronze of the 66 of the party’s anniversary, which represents AD’s wisdom, age, and experience.

The heavy elipsis following 'the time has come' at the image's center again leaves much room for play. The only certainty of what precisely the time has come FOR is that it has to do with AD. Whether this means a return to 1941 or blazing forward to 2008 and beyond is intentionally open. The time for what? Certainly more than merely the 66th anniversary of the party? For an AD-led ‘democratic rebirth’? For a new puntofijo? Or, for another coup to be followed by AD rule a la 1945-48?

The choice of ‘Conciudadanos’ (‘fellow citizens’ or ‘countrymen’) provides the key to this mystery. First, note that ‘conciudadanos’ is left in the masculine form, whereas it is becoming more and more common for political discourse in Spanish speaking parts of América to differentiate the gender of terms – saying, for example ‘Ciudadano y Ciudadana’ in order to be more inclusive and, dare I say, ‘politically correct.’ In other words, the image/text is interpolates not only a particular audience or observer (one who can even recognize the image) but also all of their father fantasies. Betancourt is in this image the fantasy father who can be chosen by the son. And as such, a doubly-invested masculine figure of robust individualism at the heart of most notions of contemporary liberal democracy and the fetish of ‘choice.’

The hailing that takes place in the title ‘conciudadano’ is an obvious interpellation of the observer, but it is important to note that it is one which operates on the register of the formal-political. That is, it calls for the passersby to recognize in the image and in themselves an ostensibly shared legal-juridical identity. This stands in direct contrast to the rhetoric of the Bolivarian revolution which is all but always articulated in collective-nationalist (that of ‘Pueblo’) or classist (that of ‘Companer@’) terms. The contrast between the two couldn’t be starker, and ultimately serves to filter who can and who cannot receive the content of the message. By addressing the ‘citizen’ the image appeals to the individual – to the autonomized member of the modern nation state which AD ostensibly helped make of Venezuela. This individual is a far cry from the collective identity being forged by the Bolivarians.

The image, like AD, ultimately fail in this attempt to present themselves as of the past and the sole road to the future. One is tempted to remember Bob Dole’s failed US presidential campaign of 1996, where he countered Bill Clinton’s ‘Bridge to the 21st Century’ slogan with his own ‘Bridge to the past’ – a gaff which just reinforced the public’s perception that he was a past his prime politician. In much the same way, the AD image’s ambiguity and dissonance make it positively productive only to its ever-dwindling constituency.

One can just as easily (perhaps even more easily) from an opposition perspective read the ‘the time has come’ as the time to close the book on AD completely. Indeed, as reinforced by the expectant image of Betancourt, one is reminded that AD founded and ended the system which made the Bolivarian Revolution all but inevitable.

La Reforma. Or, yet another (self-imposed) Opposition defeat

I am still not sure where I stand on the issue of the up and coming Constitutional Reforms to the Bolivarian Constitution (which I'm sure is keeping a lot of folks up at at night in Miraflores). As I have said before, I think it dramatically heightens the dialectic between the president and the populace in a way that can either deepen democracy in Venezuela and push the revolution to its most radical potentials or reproduce in a more robust form the centrality of the executive which has defined past regimes.

What I can definitively say at this early point in the proceedings (the public will vote on the reforma this upcoming December 2nd) is that the Venezuelan opposition is doing its normal shoddy job of organizing and furthering their position. On the one hand, they have allowed themselves to be forced into the position of defending the 1999 constitution, which brought about the advent of the ‘5th Republic’ of the (now renamed) ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ – a document they have heretofore cited as an example of Chávez’s abuse of power and the fraudulent basis of the Bolivarian Revolution. Furthermore, the strategy they have been pursuing is doing rather little to make me (or, so it seems, many others) want to see their side of things.

(an interesting comparison: Opposition anti-Reforma propaganda (on the left) using a familiar Chavista motif (below). The world bubble and the red in both images are almost always exclusively signals to the observer that the message or meaning to the propaganda are associated with Chávez or Bolivarianismo.)

Predictably, the organized political opposition is substantively focusing on the proposed indefinite reelection of the President (which would not extend to other elected officials). Much like the RCTV fiasco earlier this year, this particular issue is a ready-made ‘winnable’ issue for the anti-Chavista parties, at least in terms of international opinion. That is to say, it fits into the (Washington-made) international perception of Chávez as a megalomaniacal dictator in actuality or in waiting. According to this narrative, the Bolivarian Revolution comes not from actual historico-political conditions (the collapse of the Venezuelan political system at the end of the 20th century, the excesses of neoliberal structural readjustment and exacerbation of the gap between the poorest and richest Venezuelans throughout the 1980s and 90s, and so forth), but rather from the cult of personality around one Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías.

(It should be noted that Chávez himself has not done much to hinder this perception. He has repeatedly stated that he will stand for no changes nor additions to his 33 proposed reforms in any manner whatsoever. The Reforma occupies a prominent place among the ‘5 motors’ of the path to Bolivarian Socialism, and since he ‘is not here to do anything by halves’ they are absolute, to be voted in a bloc, and not to be adulterated in any way whatsoever.)

This has proven to be a bit problematic for reasons other than the top-down manner in which the reforms have been handled. For example, proposed changes to labor laws, which would reduce the working day to 6 hours and the working week to 36 (which, as I have pointed out, could have potentially little impact in an economy so dominated by the informal sector) have been written vaguely enough so as to allow employers to extend the (albeit 36 hour) workweek to 7 days. Bolivarian trade unionists have demanded clarifications to the reform to keep the working week 5 days long at maximum, and to guarantee workers days where they do not have to sell their labor in order to survive. Chavista legislators and others in support of the reforms have stated that no one intends for this particular reform to be used to harm workers, but this is of course the problem with relying so heavily on the laws and constitutionalism to bring about social change. The danger here is, in much the same way as RICO laws in the US were originally intended to attack organized crime but are more often used against activists and labor unions, laws can remain in place long after their original time and context have passed.

But like I originally mentioned, the opposition has not been using these opportunities to their advantage. Yesterday provided us with a clear example. Manuel Rosales (president of Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), governor of Zulia state, 2006 candidate for president), who is seen as many as the ‘head’ of the opposition held court in the Portuguese embassy with representatives from all European Union (EU) ambassadors in the country. His line: “Chávez’s perpetual reelection will harm your interests and your liberty in this country.”

He also complained that the opposition doesn’t have the same influence over the population as the government and insisted that they are not forming a ‘plan B’ as was widely circulated around the 2006 elections. (Far-right politicos and websites such as made many ominous statements in the lead up to the elections such as ‘December 3rd [election day] is not as important as what we do on December 4th [the day after what the opposition announced avant la lettre would be a fraudulent election].’ The plans included among other things the return of opposition ‘guarimbas’ –violent street blockades and destabalization efforts— which played a prominent role during the bosses' strike of 2002-3. For more detail, see George Ciccariello Maher's analysis in 'Plans B, C and D' at As always, however, Rosales here gives the lie to himself. Venezuelans sympathetic to the Bolivarian Revolution often see the opposition as both 1.) so without domestic support that they must depend on foreign allies such as the United States, the Vatican, and etc; and 2.) culturally made up either of European immigrants brought over during the dictatorships and the oil booms to fill an immediate need for highly skilled in the petrol and financial sectors of the economy OR (and perhaps more importantly) as a self-styled elite demographic centered in Caracas and Maracaibo who see themselves as White, European, and entirely above the mestizo and black majority of the country.(Coup-Monger Rats! The Pueblo will not forget!)

(it must be noted that both of these perceptions are, one has to admit after study and reflection, by no means without warrant. In this blog I have provided numerous accounts of this phenomenon. When one looks at the cultural imaginary elite Venezuelans project of themselves in the mass media, for example, one is presented with an image of Venezuela as a white republic of European ‘moderns.’ Eva Gollinger’s work (author of ‘The Chavez Code’ and ‘Bush vs. Chavez’) has definitively highlighted the anti-Bolivarian link between Washington and Venezuelan ‘Civil Society.’ More on this another time.)

So…how does Rosales rectify this situation? He holds a meeting with foreign diplomats and warns them that their interests are in danger??!?!?!??!?!!?!?!?!

Rosales has also (perhaps understandably) raised concern with the reform’s remapping of the political map of Venezuela and the introduction of the President’s ability to name special officials in charge of regions, tasks, or emergencies. For Rosales, this signals the end federal autonomy for states vis-à-vis the central government and further limits the ability of the opposition to win any toehold on power. However, coming from a man who has openly sided with Zulia-secessionists and sought US-backing for an ‘independent’ Zulia (see one of my first entires ‘Opposition Games’), this comes off as self-serving and disingenuous to most.

Primero Justicia (PJ), the Washington-founded opposition party has been focusing on the ostensible constitutionality of the reforms being voted en-bloc rather than one-by-one. Their position is that the supreme court needs to rule on the ambiguously worded Article 344 of the existing constitution which allows for the reform to be voted upon in either manner. They have conducted national surveys, held rallies, marches, press conferences – the normal course of events in a political campaign – missing the opportunity to actually debate the issues of the reform.

In the absence of any actual opposition criticism of substance to the reform, debates have been occurring within the Bolivarian bloc. The Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV) recently announced the proposed reforms they are in accordance with and suggested some reforms of their own (including reducing the voting age to 16), as has Patria Para Todos (PPT) (including the extension of potentially perpetual reelection to all elected officials). Trade Unions are pointing out the inconsistencies or vagueries in labor-related proposals. In the absence of properly ‘political’ leadership, business groups have made entreaties to the Asemblea Nacional to strengthen protections for private property in the face of the reform’s introduction of social and communal property-forms into the constitution. In short, not only is this moment deepening the democratic potentials of the Bolivarian Revolution, it is also exposing the extreme baselessness of opposition claims that the ‘dictatorship’ has stifled ‘civil society’ and ‘dissent.’

If the Reforma is rejected this December, it will have little to do opposition attempts to win over the population. Rather, it will ironically have come about as a result of the democratic energies unleashed by the revolution itself. (‘Only the Pueblo can save the Pueblo, Homeland, Socialism, or Death.’ The image of one fist pounding into another is that of the Unidad Popular de Venezuela, an ultra Bolivarian party headed by Lina ‘you can’t have a revolution without violence’ Ron. Ron has taken it upon herself to organize the ‘malandros’ (hoodlums, more or less) and outcasts of Venezuelan society to defend the Revolution by any means necessary.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Evo Morales on Daily Show

Here's the Youtube link.

there are also, as always, more goodies on all things Bolivian at :


Evo takes a bit to warm up, but it is most certainly worth the wait...I've become a bit accustomed to hearing presidents admit that the problems of today have come about due to the excesses of capitalism, living here in Venezuela and all...but it was still strange to see it on US television.

Especially important was the point where Evo pointed out, after Stewart soft-balled him the (inevitable) question on Chávez and Fidel, that there are countries which send their soldiers out to heal people, and countries that send soldiers out to kill them...I really wanted him to then slap the table and yell 'boo-yaaaaah, beeeeeeeeyyyyyyaaaaaaaacccccchhhhhh!' but alas, presidentailism prevailed.

On a less happy note, Caracas dailies reported that the Movimento al Socialismo (MAS) -- the party Evo heads -- is considering junking the constitutional reform project, which has been stalled by a strong (and much less stupid, when compared to their Venezuelan counterparts) opposition and regional separatist movements.

On a completely different note:

(graf from Oaxaca, summer 2006 reads: 'Turist, kill the bad governmnet. Support the APPO' the model is some homeless guy I paid 30 pesos to to provide perspective.)

File this under why the NYTimes IS NOT your friend...

Today's online edition features an 'article' by James C McKinley Jr. and Antonio Betancourt about recent attacks on natural gas lines by the 'shadowy' (sic.) Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR). The article, whose source is all but exclusively a federal prosecutor, alleges that the EPR is a glorified kidnapping ring before coming out with this gem:

"Mexican law enforcement officials say the guerrillas are using the men’s disappearance as a pretext to destabilize Mexico and set off a leftist revolution. The bombings, they theorize, probably stem from anger among radical leftists over the federal crackdown on violent political protests in Oaxaca last year and the outcome of the presidential election, in which the leftist candidate narrowly lost."

Okay, aside from the fact that i'm STILL scratching my head as to what exactly a 'leftist revolution' means (I mean, come on, the democratic canidates in the US practically say more of substance than that...), is the blatant smear on the APPO. This is is textbook media manipulation 101. By calling the protests of the summer and fall of 2006 'violent' one immediately conjures in their head the image of black masked anarchist testosterone machines duking it out with cops like a bunch of gringo highschool football players.

In other words, one gets the completely wrong impression.

What really happened was a group of teachers' unions, most prominently Section 22 of the SNTE (Sindicato Naciónal de Trabajadores Educativas), who were occupying the zocalo (or town square) were forcibly removed by the municipal police in June of 2006.

(The zocalo is traditionally the centerpoint of any Mexican city's political and economic culture, not to mention just a damn nice place to eat an ear of corn and watch children play -- traditionally in Mexico, when a group or party or assembly of aggrieved persons wishers their voices to be heard, they occupy the zocalo of their city. The zocalo in the center of the captial, D.F., for example, is occupied by parties of all stripes more often than it is clear enough to chase pigeons or take a photo beneath the impossibly large tricolor).

The teachers' unions, bolstered by sympathetic sectors of Oaxaqueño society at large, retook the zocalo, and kept the police completely out of the city center until November of 2006. In the course of the prolonged 'hot' and 'cold' conflict between what became the Asemblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) and the Oaxaqueño and the Federal state, hundreds of APPO members have been injured by indiscriminate police violence and at least 15 have died (including a gringo journalist, which drew the attention of the mainstream US public for the first time in October).

This is of course a long line in misinformation and malandering on the part of the NYT. Less we forget its coverage of quasi leftist Mexican PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obredor during the last (fraudulent) elections in that country, its editorial line in support of the 2002 April coup in Venezuela, its repeated (and often fabricated) denunciations against Chávez written directly from the poshest sectors of Caracas...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Venezuelan Government Overrun with Stinking Hippies

President Hugo Chávez raised eyebrows the world over when he announced recently that Venezuela would change the time here to bring the 'legal' day in line with the 'natural' one (obviously, when a country changes the clocks once or, say, twice annually, it MUST be run by some strange Kim Jong-il/Michael Jackson freak-o-dictator hybrid).

I was personally looking quite forward to the day, September 23, when i'd get to sleep-in an extra half hour, as I've still yet to completely readjust my internal clocks after a recent visit to the US.

However, news came from the Neverland Ranch that the time change would in fact NOT take place this sunday (dammit) but would be moved to be more in line with the upcoming solstice. Fucking hippies. I bet the next thing will be mandatory drum circles and the world's biggest burning man.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Misiones, State and Revolution, pt 2: Social Reproduction

A while ago, I wrote an entry concerning the 5 ‘motors’ of the Bolivarian Revolution. More than an organizing thematic or a template for nifty billboards, these 5 motors are reminders of is so revolutionary about the Bolivarian project. Case in point: today's installment of my series of entries re-thinking the state through the misiones Bolivarianas.

One doesn't have to have read Foucault to appreciate that capitalism and the state (to the extent that the two can be separated) do not reproduce themselves through blatant and obvious shows-of-force. Indeed, the most effective use of power, its most efficient production, occurs when state and capital can mold willing subjects, cloak our subjection (meant in both registers--subjection as in being subject-to as well as in being created as a subject) in the robes of 'choice' and 'liberty' (ahh...liberalism!). While "capital-p-Power" certainly retains the capacity to use violent and immediate force (indeed, it remains defined by such expressions), the use of violence by the state all too often signals a weak point, or at the very least the incapacity of the state to rule through its ideological and consent regimes. (There is a reason, after all, that the first thing Pedro Carmona and the other coup-mongers did back in 2002 is send the military to the streets to kill off uppity Bolivarians).

All of this is to say that the Bolivarian Revolution carries with it an authentically revolutionary appreciation of the situation in Venezuela, and the conditions underwhich it can be successful. Transforming the Fourth Republic reality of Venezuela they have inherited requires more than rewriting the constitution, more than establishing laws that are more favorable to the majority of Venezuelans. While these reforms of the state are indeed necessary and provide the necessary space for actual change to occur, the process can only be successful in the reproduction of capital and state Power is disrupted. This is the long, hard work of revolution, without which the Bolivarian Revolution is doomed to being referred to as 'an experiment' by future generations of Venezuelans and others who want to create a better world.

In this regard, the 5 motors provide us with a roadmap of what is to be done, and the misiones allow us to make it happen.

The First Motor, the enabling laws, is nothing new to Venezuela or the region. They have been used by every president since the end of the Pérez-Jiménez dictatorship either to get rid of urban guerrillas through various constitutional and unconstitutional means (Raphael Caldera's first presidency, 1969-74), nationalize important sectors of the economy (Carlos Andrés Pérez’s first presidency, 1974-79) or privatize them (Andrés Pérez’s second time around [1989-1993]). The difference between these past examples and those of Chávez has been that Chávez is looking not to avert an immediate crisis (Caldera), hand out benefits in order to gain popularity (Andrés Pérez) or meet the demands of international financial institutions (Andrés Pérez again) but rather to bring about a future where these sorts of measures are no longer necessary.

The second motor, constitutional reform, looks to make the potentials of the 1999 constitution reality, and to deepen the revolutionary process.

The fourth, the new geometry of power, is an authentic decentralization. That is, whereas previous rounds of decentralization allowed for more formal democratic participation by allowing local and regional officials to be popularly elected (previously, they were appointed by the president), this more often than not just made for the localization of strong man politics and more intense nepotism. This motor calls for power to be exercised in the country outside of Caracas and Maracaibo. It replaces ‘liberal’ or ‘representational’ with protagonistic democracy.

The third and fifth motors are absolutely essential for understanding the role of education and social reproduction in the Bolivarian revolution.

Third and fifth motors

The third constituent motor of Bolivarian Socialism, ‘Moral y Luces’ emphasizes the necessity of education and revolutionary commitment in the construction of a new society. Like Che Guevara’s much toted ‘New Man’ of the post-revolutionary period, the Bolivarians recognize and emphasize that the world they have inherited and been formed by – the morality, instrumental rationality and social hierarchies of the fourth republic in Venezuela and neoliberal capitalism the world over – are neither desirable nor sustainable for the vast majority of the world’s human and non-human population. In order to change this reality, to make a new society, one needs to produce new men and women.

These new men and women, full social beings respected for more than their capacity to sell labor and die quietly are the propellants of the fifth motor, the explosion of communal power. This, the most radical of the motors, is the real withering of the state which is taking place more and more with every new project planned and executed ‘from below’ here in Venezuela. This is what is most threatening to the opposition and their masters in Washington. That is to say, that is to say, aside from the explicitly racial formation of anti-Chávez and anti-Chavista sentiment, the most threatening aspect of the Bolivarian Revolution is the intense dialectic being formed between the extreme poles of constituting and constituted power in Venezuela. Political power is increasingly tending towards Chávez or the base communities, all mediating institutions and positions are being pushed aside.
(Hence the seemingly asinine response of the opposition to Chávez’s constitutional reforms proposed recently. Rather than arguing that the proposals should be approved or disapproved en bloc as demanded by Chávez, the opposition is demanding the proposals be voted on one by one. Three important things here: first, they know they cannot win an outright victory against Chávez by voting the entire package down. Separating out the reforms allow them to put all their energy into attacking those reforms that are most noxious to their interests, such as redrawing the political-territorial map of the country or the end of an autonomous central bank. Secondly, debating the proposals one by one can perhaps buy them a bit of the appearance of rationality, which have heretofore been sorely lacking. Third and finally – and here members of Chávista-affiliated parties like Patria Para Todos (PPT) and PODEMOS have just as much at stake as opposicionistas – such a maneuver makes them and their function look necessary. If developments continue apace in Venezuela, with Chávez announcing x, y, or z reform which the population at large can either approve or disapprove, or with the Communal Councils of x, y, or z municipality directly designing policies or infrastructural development without having to go through layer upon layer of absentee ‘representatives’ or state bureaucrats, the National Assembly may become all but obsolete.)

The Educational Misiones: Robinson, Ribas, and Sucre

These three misiones, like misión Barrio Adentro, are perhaps the most well known of the Bolivarian missions. By 2005, Misión Robinson I, a basic literacy curriculum, succeeded in making Venezuela an ‘illiteracy free’ country, having sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers and volunteers into the most dangerous and underdeveloped parts of the country as teachers.Misión Robinson II extends part I’s scope to cover primary school subjects like math, geography, literature, science and social studies. Students are often ‘non-traditional’ in their age and background, being predominantly adults from the sectors of Venezuelan society traditionally excluded from educational opportunity.
Misión Ribas (in which I teach English in La Vega, a large barrio in the south western part of Caracas) offers secondary education to graduates of Misión Robinson. In addition to directly providing education to students and citizens, the misión provides resources and scholarships as their studies require more and more attention. Misión Sucre does similar things for higher education, pursing and guaranteeing access to private and public universities. Sucre also includes the foundation and development of the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in Caracas in 2003, though perhaps more importantly the misión includes the formation of more than 20 university level specialization and regional schools throughout the country.

Related to the concrete developments of the educational misiones has been the call by the government to end the entrance exam regimens for the nation’s private and public schools. It is telling, then, that the so-called ‘student movement,’ which discredited themselves as tools more quickly than any movement in the history of moving, has shifted the focus of their ire from the ‘closing’ of RCTV to Primero Justicia’s ‘Misión Vida’ and the demand for ‘autonomy’ of the university from the state in policy if not funding. This is classic class power at work. As the Bolivarians rightly point out, the ostensible ‘meritocracy’ of university admission is actually a rather robust filter that works to keep the majority of the poor out of universities. The fact that the revolution takes education so seriously (perhaps because, rumor has it, Chávez is up reading Negri long after I’ve fallen asleep watching illegal downloads of US-cooking shows) is both a testament of its recognition of the import of education to maintaining the current formation of class power as well as an absolutely necessary component of the building of a new society.

Misión Vuelvan Caras/Che Guevara

The terrain of Misión Che Guevara (formerly known as Misión Vuelvan Caras) is the very reproduction of the socio-political reality of Venezuela and the way it is and will be imbricated in global capitalist production. It not only argues that capitalism is fundamentally bad for human development, it seeks to produce actual and actualizable alternatives. The misión starts from an analysis of the role of poverty and unemployment in capitalism, human tolls it contends are the consequence of a social system that treats things like people and people like things. From the text of the misión’s mission statement:

“Unemployment and poverty are the main problems associated with capitalist production. The dependency produced by an import and mono-productive economy based in oil has made many nations forget the fruits of the earth and the creative capacity of their people, putting in place a market that only benefits the most powerful, pushing to the side small and medium sized productors.
“Misión Che Guevara is a program that celebrates the creative power of the people, through their protagonistic participation in the production of goods and services. In this way, the Bolivarian Government is pursuing a new model of development – from within the people – whose objective is to advance national production.”

That is, the new path initiated by Misión Che Guevara is one where the path of development emphasizes living labor, whereas capitalist development emphasizes commodity production. It furthermore extends this fundamental Marxist insight into the nature of capitalist society to the trap of monoproduction suffered by so many postcolonies in general and oil economies like Venezuela in particular. This is key. The Bolivarian revolution seek to redistribute the wealth of the oil economy, this much is obvious. However, the truly revolutionary task being undertaken is the redistribution of national production tout court – the transformation of what Venezuela ‘does.’ Without changing the composition of productive processes within the Venezuelan economy, the Bolivarian Revolution’s ability to provide for the poorest Venezuelans will be determined by the demands of the international market. More importantly, without changing what it means to work – that is, without changing the role of human labor power and creativity from its current position as an alienated commodity sold to an exterior force and inserted like so much machinery into the productive process to that of protagonist within the productive process, affirming rather than negating its creative capacity through human interaction – the Bolivarian Revolution will limit itself by failing to adequately diagnose the task it faces.

Thus, Misión Che Guevara emphasizes ‘endogenous development’ by which it means
“to develop all that we need to live from inside our society, without having to depend on other countries. [Endogenous Development’ is the social, cultural and economic transformation of our society, based in taking back our traditions, respect for our environment and egalitarian relations of production, allowing us to transform our natural wealth into products we can consume, distribute, and export to the outside world. It is also:
“To facilitate the ability of communities to develop the agricultural, industrial and touristic potentials of their regions.
“To incorporate persons who have up to this point in history been excluded from educational, economic, and social systems.
“To build productive networks where we all participate in an equality of conditions where we have access to knowledge and technology.
“To put the infrastructure of the state which have to this point been abandoned (state industries such as industrial cities, factories, idle lands, among others) at the service of the people in order to produce goods and services.
“It is, finally, to transform ourselves in order to transform society.”

‘Endogenous development’ thus not only means (finally) bucking the ‘why build it when you can buy it’ mentality of petro-states, it also means the revolutionary integration of economic and socio-cultural aspects of human life.
(One of my favorite examples from within Caracas: the predominantly youth-based artists' collective "Tiuna, el fuerte." And! they're online at
Projects which fall within the ambit of Misión Che Guevara range from artists’ collectives and youth hip-hop organizations in urban Caracas to agricultural centers in Aragua. Participants in the Misión also take part in other misiones – in the educational misiones as students or in Misión Arbol as organizers and workers, for example. The point that is always emphasized, however, is the trading of the egoistic pursuit of individual gain for the furtherance of the collective both in means and ends. Traditional wage labor structures are replaced by communally owned and directly democratic workplaces, cities transformed from what is increasingly a collection of privatized and fortified pods of nuclear families and smaller to sites which foster the participation of whole communities, and so forth.

The misiones in general, and these 4 (5, if you want to count both stages of Robinson separately) recognize that the terrain of contemporary anti-capitalism is the terrain of social reproduction. Leninist models of a dialectic between the seizure of state power and the distribution of power to workers' soviets, while important precedents, cannot obtain in Venezuela without significant adaptation. Work here is so informalized, so pre- and post- industrial (to the extent that such temporal descriptions edge on the absurd, and not just for 'industrial'--categories like the 'modern' and 'colonial' need to be used with rather heavy qualification in Venezuela if not the world over) that previous strategies and tactics of the class struggle should be seen as fellow travellers' examples rather than necessary antecedents and roadmaps. By centering so much energy and focus in 'the social,' the Bolivarian Revolution allows for a more fluid and expansive disruption of Capitalism in Venezuela, openning up more space for positive transformation and more occasions for victory celebrations.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Constitutional Reforms

This will be the first post in an inevitable series of posts reflecting on the recently proposed changes to the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999. For more details and on-going debate on the reforms, you might want to check out the goings-on at

On Wednesday Chávez came to the National Assembly to deliver his proposed package of Constitutional reforms. In true Chávez form, the speech lasted over four hours, and touched on much more than the 33 (of 350) articles of the 1999 constitution he would like to change. Private media outlets in Venezuela have almost exclusively focused on the changes he would like to make to articles pertaining to the executive – a change in term length from 6 to 7 years and the removal of term limits – as evidence of his pretensions to ruling Venezuela ad infinitum. These are, unsurprisingly, decidedly not the most important of his proposals. And let’s face it, the opposition is less upset with the idea based on any sort of democratic principle than it is aware that they don’t have a chance in hell of ever competing with Chávez electorally. This betrays yet another misperception on the part of the opposition. The other reforms envisioned by Chávez are indeed more threatening to their pretensions of one day returning to power. That is to say, should the majority of the other reforms – which the National Assembly now has to debate and approve or reject – have their intended effect, the presidency itself in the new Venezuela will become increasingly obsolete.

Here are, thematically organized, the reforms Chávez wants to make to the 1999 Constitution other than the changes to the norms governing the executive. Generally speaking, the reforms make ‘soft’ elements of the old constitution ‘hard’ – from an ‘ought’ to a ‘will’ or provide details where they were previously lacking.

1. Territorially, Chávez wants to realign the country’s geo-political landscape according to the new geometry of power—an authentic ‘decentralization,’ if you will. This takes a few forms. On the one hand he wants to change the language of Article 11 to allocate more power to the federal government in times of natural or national emergency. On the other, he wants to open up the field of possibility for new forms of local power to be created and exercised. For example, the constitutional recognition of communes and the emergence of the Distritos Federales would, he asserts, allow for entrenched regional powers to be unseated by popularly initiated and federally backed exodus. The key to this is making a longtime slogan of Chavismo reality, and making public or popular power the true key to sovereign power in Venezuela. For example, proposed changes to article 136 read:

“Public power is distributed territorially in the following form: popular power, municipal power, state power, and national power…the people is the depository of sovereignty and it exercises this power directly through popular power. [Popular power] is not born in suffrage nor in any election, but is born in human organization…popular power is expressed in the organization of communities, communes and the self government of cities through communal councils, worker councils, peasant councils, student councils and other entities signaled by he law”
Thus whereas nearly every liberal constitution in the world—including the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999—ostensibly finds its authority in the sovereign people in the theoretical ultimate instance and the watered down spectacle of regular elections, these proposed changes look to make popular power a fact of quotidian existence.
----A bit of background: in Venezuela, mayors and governors have only been popularly elected since the 1980s. This reform was seen as a major step towards de-centralization by many political scientists and other observers who see the key to ‘democracy’ as being strong institutions. However, Venezuelan decentralization, such as it was, more often than not served only to add a degree of democratic legitimation to a still functioning corrupt system.

(Although it should be noted that there were important inroads made by parties such as La Causa R [Radical Cause] in Caracas and in the oil producing areas of the south which should be understood as part of the prehistory of the Fifth Republic. On the subject of Venezuela’s ostensible ‘democracy’ during the Fourth Republic, it is also important to note that many social scientists considered the country to be the ‘democratic exception’ surrounded by dictatorships and civil war torn neighbors. This despite the fact that the country was BY DESIGN run exclusively by two equally corrupt parties (AD and COPEI) that banned third parties and regularly assassinated opponents.)----

Though Chávez did not outline a specific plan in this respect, he also called for the reorganization of Caracas. This move is both necessary and dangerous in that the current organization, a strange form of power sharing between 5 mayors and one ‘mayor-mayor’ is not only hard for gringos to understand, it also makes addressing the problems of the capital city – from infrastructural concerns to road and garbage maintenance, to who has the right to issue parking tickets, to astronomical crime rates and the ever-expanding population – all but impossible. However, of the 5 municipalities 3 of them – Chacao, Baruta and El Hatillo – are for all intents and purposes the heart and soul of oposicionismo. Centralizing, or at least aligning the jurisdictional map of Caracas is without a doubt a necessary first step in addressing the problems of the capital, but the opposition will without a doubt battle to the death to maintain their islands of power. They would be stupid not to.

2. Chávez also proposed to constitutionally restrict the working day to 6 hours. While this is massively important in terms of workers’ rights, the vast majority of non-state or petrol sector employment takes place in the informal sector, which definitionally doesn’t care what the constitution says.

On a related front, he wants to modify article 112, which allows workers to ‘freely’ choose how and where they want to work in order to include new forms of property – communal, public, mixed and social – in addition to the more standard of private property. Article 114 will also be revised. Whereas in the 1999 constitution questioned monopolies and described them as contrary to the interests of the people, they would now be banned, as will the latifundio (Article 307).

This last point is also rather interesting in that Chávez seeks to change the government’s responsibility vis-à-vis food production from providing ‘alimentary security’ to ‘alimentary sovereignty.’ In other words, this reform would constitutionally mandate the government to develop domestic production of necessary foodstuffs which are now being imported. The project, then, is not only to massively realign the productive structure of the country – from a petrol-import-economy to a self-sufficient sovereign one – but also to do it while in the process of developing new forms of land ownership. Not only will the emphasis be on the small farmer, agricultural production in the new Venezuela will take place on collective farms, communes, mixed use government-private sector initiatives and common public space. The days of the massive plantation worked by campesinos are over.

3. Chávez also called for the full-scale state-ization of the Banco Central de Venezuela. In other words, he is seeking to politicize and revolutionize the Venezuelan Central Bank. More on this later.

4. The Armed Force will also undergo a thematic overhaul, incorporating militias for the popular defense of the country and the revolution in asymmetrical warfare situations. Chávez has often remarked that the Bolivarian Revolution is “peaceful, but armed” and of late has emphasized the fact that the only real external threat the country faces is the same as any other in the world: The United States. The fact that the empire to the north (and west, hola Colombia!) has a military and a military budget that outstrips the GNP of most countries means that Venezuela simply cannot fight toe to toe with the giant and would be stupid to try.

However, and more importantly, I think, is the civic project of building a citizen army (as opposed to the mercenary style of public-military service currently employed in the Empire). This of course ruffles the feathers of the democracy fetishists who have long decried the ‘militarization’ Venezuelan society (by this I mean the social scientists and apologists for capital that see democracy as synonymous with formal institutions separated by firewalls). Keep in mind that the function of the Armed Force in the Bolivarian Revolution has been increasingly as a public servant – first in the Plan Bolívar 2000 and subsequently in many of the Misiones, public works projects and national emergencies. It is hoped by Chávez and others that the development of civilian militias will not only help organize the population to more effectively take control of their own lives, but also induce in them an identification with the state and nation to replace the cynicism germinated by 40 years of kleptocracy.

(Which, of course, opens a whole different can of worms which I will flag here and mention in subsequent posts. The revolutionary government has done more for the majority of the Venezuelan people than any other government since independence. This all but an undeniable fact at this point. However, it largely remains ‘developmentalist’ in its discourse and its policies.)

5. Chávez also seeks to incorporate the Misiones and communal councils into the constitutionally defined governing structure of the country. So, while the 1999 constitution states that the right to education and health care are the patrimony of every Venezuelan and that all sovereignty resides in the pueblo not in the final term but in the immediate, the proposed changes would mandate the mechanisms for making it so. The misiones thus become definitionally the duty of the government to the people and communal power becomes ever more the direct expression of governance. Also, the current project of delivering direct budgetary and fiscal powers to communal councils will be included in the constitution.

Thus we get yet another example of the dialectic between Chávez, a dialectic increasingly antagonistic to any attempt at mediation. Institutional political power is increasingly realized and exercised at the poles of the traditional map of power – on the one end the power of the executive, with Chávez propelling the initiatives and innovations of the revolutionary process. On the other, there is the increasing responsibility, creative influence, benefit and activity of the organized population. Quite apart from the dreams of moderate Chavistas to turn Venezuela into a Scandanavian-style welfare state social democracy, constitutional reforms and quotidian political reality here in Venezuela point toward the need for a pushing beyond a friendlier face to capitalist develepment.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Gender Violence and the Bolivarian Revolution: a recent example

Luis Felipe Acosta Carles, the (Bolivarian) governor of Carabobo state, has been posting a series of billboards throughout the state capital, Valencia, trying to raise public awareness of the media’s role in creating/exacerbating the problems facing Venezuela today. Usually the billboards and posters include some sort of image, a condemnation, and the tagline: “Security is the responsibility of all.” The point here is that opposition media outlets have been outspoken in their critiques of the government’s inability to do something about the violent crime rate throughout the country.

Here’s the latest installment: (The text reads: "Inciting sex brings rape. Security is all of our responsibility." This is, more or less, a tit-for-tat (pardon the expression) with the local media. On the one hand, the media accuse the government of doing nothing alleviate the security situation in the state and the country. On the other, they regularly publish material that tacitly approves of one particular form of violence and criminality -- against women)

Now, you’ll notice that the images all seem to be taken from the pages of newspapers, and appear to be features of some sort, not ‘just’ advertisements (not that that would in anyway make the disembodied bethonged ass of some beachgoer staring out at you from page 13 any less disconcerting, it just provides a [weak] cop-out for the editorial board).

Predictably, and not without justification, many feminist organizations have pointed out that the posters are deeply ambiguous. While the governor’s intentions may indeed be to unpack the semiotic link between the objectification of women and their socially-sanctioned rape-ability and to highlight the media's role in the construction of said link, the message on the boards themselves runs rather close to blaming the victims of rape. Not to mention the fact that, heh, if you want to get rid of something, if you really and truly and sincerely think something is bad, and you really and truly and sincerely want to be rid of it, then you probably shouldn’t plaster it all over town. In the words of Iris Hernández, a local council member from the (Chavista) Movimento de la Quinta Republica (MVR), “[these billboards] reflect in a direct form, explicitly and subliminally, the offense…danger, victimization, and inferior situation made by the fact of being a woman.” In other words, the women printed on the pages of oppostition newspapers were objectified by said papers. Carles on re-objectified them when he re-printed their images in order to make political points against his enemies.

Hernández, accompanied by other officials--all within the ranks of Chavismo, added, “These billboards, with their message, violate the laws and dispositions of the Bolivarian constitution of Venezuela…and even more from a legal point of view they themselves incite rape” (El Carabobeño, 11 Agosto, 2007). The Bolivarian Constitution has been noted by many as one of the most progressive in the world, especially as regards individual and group liberties. State sanctioned of group-specific violence is, suffice it to say, is not included among its articles, nor is it looked upon kindly.

[It bears noting, however, that the opposition has not failed to jump on the issue. Just one quick visit to, a popular opposition news and discussion site, finds many active plans to capitalize on the situation. And as if we needed more evidence as to the general rancidness of the opposition, among the discussions one can encoutner many psuedo-feminists talking about the 'rights of women being trampled by these fascists' laughing and agreeing with Nazi innuendo and claiming that the governor wants to rid the state of (female) pornography because he is gay, just like the rest of the dictatorship (sic)]

Acosta Carles’ response: “I’m not against women wearing bikinis on the beach, I like it when Claret [his wife, who accompanied him for the speech] wears her bikinis, but the beach is one thing and the media is another.” He then added a biblical reference for good measure (hint:) to criticize those within Chavismo who have criticized his billboards. The logic (?) of the biblical reference is that these ‘opportunists of the revolution’ are selling Carles down the river in order to get in the spotlight and Chávez’s good graces. He continues, “and they ask me for security…but this is a security plan, to raise the awareness of the media to not use pornography. And now they say [I] ought to go to jail. Ah, but they don’t attack the media who publish all these beauties and bodies, all this staged beauty, physical but untouchable, but no one still, not even my own fellow party members, have presented me with a plan to guarantee peace and tranquility in the state.”
(El Carabobeño, 11 Agosto, 2007)

So is it, “hard working man trying to do what’s right just to be nagged and nagged by the bitchy opportunist feminazis?”

Or, is it “Short sighted particular interests shoot themselves in the foot and aid the opposition who do EVEN LESS about gender violence than the Revolution?”

Perhaps more interesting than anything else in Carles’ response is the way that he both touches upon truth while embodying the criticisms levied against him. On the one hand, he is right to point out that the private media’s depiction of women in Venezuela gives one the impression of a 24-7-365 taping of ‘Girls Gone Wild.’ On the other, his defense does just as little as his strategy to combat gender violence as the strategy itself.

A few quick anecdotes are in order: RCTV (gawd, i miss freedom) ran a spot on the ‘Venezuelan Women’s Football Team’ (before its concession ran out, of course) which featured 11 models in thongs and glittery bikini tops kicking a ball while the male commentator repeatedly whistled at their giggles and jiggles. Basic cable features a show called ‘Naked Wild On,’ featuring cheesy voice-overs a la ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ explaining to the audience at home that the unsuspecting nude sunbather ‘wants it.’

This of course doesn’t even begin touch on the imbrication of race and gender. Any guide book or trivia collection about Venezuela proudly notes that the country has accrued more international beauty pageant titles than any other country in the world.

(1981’s Miss Univers, Irene Sáez, ran for president as COPEI’s candidate against Hugo Chávez in the 1998 elections. She finished fourth with 2.8% of the vote.)The question, of course, is why are almost all the images of 'venozolanas lindas' a bunch of cracker descendents from mid-20th century oil-boom immigrants?

Much like Miss Universe, the image of beauty all too often presented to the public by the private media here is all but a carbon copy of a North-American male’s media-infected idealization of ‘pretty.’ In effect, the Venezuelan private media’s depiction of women simultaneously feeds and produces a fairly typical dual white male fantasy structure which defines the good, the right and the beautiful. First, 'women' (because women outside the mold are something else...) are skinny (but always well endowed in the chest), white and blond. Hence, the prototypical fantastic ‘she’ carries the necessary maternal traits (large breasts-milk-sustenance-protection) while providing a positive pole of colonial identification (white-goodness) as well as the ‘youthly beauty’ (and privileged social position) of remaining thin.

Second, women are there for the taking. Available, subservient, on display. Madonna and Whore. And, it is of course up to the male in the equation to decide when the ‘she’ gets to be which. The interaction of these fantasies, as they reinforce one another, plays into a third, that of the male protector, of the ultimate comodification of the woman as the object to be held – displayed proudly but never to be shared. This relationship is not reciprocal.

So what precisely does this exercise in by and large second wave feminist analysis have to do with the governor of Carabobo misguidedly plastering T & A on the streets of Valencia? On the one hand, he registers the way private media inculcates particular forms of desiring which can lead to the violent expression of that desire should reality not align itself with the fantastic structure of the subject (violent, it should be noted, for the subject experiencing the trauma as well as the focus or occasion of their frustration). “All these beauties and bodies, all this staged beauty, physical but untouchable.” The key word is of course ‘staged.’ Carles points out the plastic nature of the content, the ultimate unreality of it all, while still betraying the degree to which he remains enfolded within and influenced by it. He then performs the desiring of this beauty as well as the frustrating denial of consummation (physical but untouchable). The result is that this defense of his actions reinforces their problematic nature.

On the other hand, for Carles it is okay for women to expose themselves in certain situations, certain ‘appropriate’ zones (the beach). It is, however, decidedly not okay for the female form to be exposed outside of his control. By this, I do not mean to approve of the private media’s depiction of women. Rather, my contention is that this particular response has less to do with women even as objects to be protected (even if that were a goal to be pursued) and more with control. One could, presented with this situation, find a road other (note I did not say between) than the puritanical and the permissive. I am suggesting a path which approaches sexuality not as an always already commodified ‘thing’ or amalgam of things – breasts, asses, vulnerable snap shots and the like – that are contained either in their prohibition from the public or in their widespresad use in advertisements.
In other words, a de-fetish-ization.
The truly revolutionary work, work in the spirit of the Bolivarian revolution, would here be to address the social and psychological structures which entice such an excited response, from those who would censor it as well as from those who would exploit its allure. Such working-through would necessarily be collective to be effective, and would, I hope lead not to a general ‘de-sexing’ of reality, but rather to non uni-directional forms of sexuality that have more to do with pleasure, and less to do with fantasies of control.

The added touch of his wife presented for his defense (the equivalent of ‘heh, I’ve got black friends’ after dropping the N-bomb at a party), while politically necessary, is further symptomatic of the contradictory nature of his position. This contradiction – between fighting against sexual violence while unknowingly reinforcing many of its preconditions – is perhaps to a certain degree inevitable as one begins to wrestle with our gendered inheritances. It is incumbent on the revolutionary to approach these situations prepared to work through the socializations of the old order, understand that we are just as imbricated in them as anyone else, to be self-critical and sincere in our efforts to jettison them.

In other words, Carles’ campaign is right on target, his execution dubious if not deplorable, and his response to criticism anything but revolutionary.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Misiones, State and Revolution (pt 1)

This will be part one of a series of short essays/long blog entries introducing the work and the context of the various 'misiones bolivarianas' that are at the center of the Bolivarian Revolution. The entries are still in a fairly rough form, and most of the numbers are from official sources (which have proven to be most accessible), so I have yet to cross check things. The gist of what this project entails is an analysis of two central claims levied against Chávez and the Bolivarians. The first is the notion that the misiones represent little more than populist excess and are hence unsustainable. The second is that the Bolivarian Revolution is a purely top-down affair, without significant or authentic popular participation or benefit. in the process of this discussion, I will also outline and examine some of the challenges the misiones pose to the way we understand the state and revolutionary transformation.

Misión Árbol

Venezuela is covered by 50 million hectares of forest land, a figure which represents 56% of the national territory, 5.6% of forestland in South America, and 1.3% of the world’s forest coverage. Of that number, official estimates put losses of forestland due to human intervention at approximately 140,000 hectares (0.3%) annually. Reforestation attempts to this point have only been able to replant approximately 15,000 hectares annually. In its one and a half year lifespan, Misión Árbol boasts the formation of 1,902 Conservation Committees, with 1,327 community and educational and 46 institutional nurseries either built or in development. All told, over twenty-six and a half millions plants have been seeded, with nearly 4.3 million planted.

Since June 2006 Misión Árbol (Mission Tree) has sought to reverse the ecological trend towards deforestation and industrial/urbanization which holds true in Venezuela as much as it does throughout the region. According to its mission statement, this misión of national scope’s goal is to replace the model of capitalist development which “encourages the exploitation of natural resources in an indiscriminate manner, bringing about their progressive deterioration and impoverishment.” The impetus for the project is thus rooted in an understanding of the political and economic context it seeks to transform in order to bring about, “in the ecological sphere[,] participatory and protagonistic democracy.”

This phrase is repeated throughout the mission statements of the various Misiones Bolivarianas, and references the desire of the revolution not simply to make all the positive initiatives a reality – according to the historical pattern of rentier-state populism(s), that can be done by throwing enough money at a problem, which ultimately results in their moral and fiscal bankruptcy – but to address the socio-political factors underlying the problems. In the example of Misión Árbol, to simply plant trees in the Llanos or Gran Sábana of Venezuela would only provide the fodder for future clear cuts. The logic of the revolution in this particular project is thus not only to plant trees and tell people that cutting them down is ‘bad’ but rather to bring about a new model of human social interaction with their natural environment. Thus the project explicitly states that it aims for the projects to be carried out neither by private nor state companies, but rather by the effected organized communities themselves. That is to say, the Bolivarian strand of Misión Árbol emphasizes the need for the communities themselves to develop new forms of stewardship and resource extraction more amenable to needs of the nation as a whole.

Thus, as in most of the misiones, the central axis of the project is the communal council, which has direct access to state funds and determines the distribution thereof according to the collective decision of the community.

Misión Barrio Adentro
Barrio Adentro is one of the most famous, and infamous, of the missions. It brings Cuban doctors (Cuba, it has long been said, exports doctors much the same way as the United States exports lawyers and wars) to parts of Venezuela which have never had access to affordable or proximate health care. The misión itself came about mid-2003, and has been comprised since then of various stages including the construction of clinics, provision of equipment, diversification of care available and expansion of the network of ‘modules’ or care centers throughout the country. In just one year, the misión was able to increase access to healthcare such that there is now one doctor for every 250 families or for every 1,200 persons. In four years, the misión has built 1,612 modulos with 4,618 under construction throughout the country to augment 4,800 pre-existing public ambulatory clinics.

The program continues to expand, with new iterations of the original Misión paying ever more attention to preventative medicine and whole-community health programs. It has also spurred on the formation of new but related misiones, such as Misión Milagro. Milagro was initiated in June 2004 with a specific focus on eye care and the stated goal of spreading its reach beyond Venezuela.

Perhaps more important than ‘cold statistics’ is that under the new system care is increasingly universalized – i.e. under the fourth republic, there might have been 500 doctors per person, but these numbers reflect the disproportionate amount of cosmetic surgeons, private clinicians, and hyper-specialists that by and large only served the richest members of Venezuelan society.

This previous reality is perhaps reflected most clearly in one of the biggest controversies surrounding Barrio Adentro: the fact that it utilizes Cuban – rather than Venezuelan – doctors. According to those Venezuelan doctors who have taken part in Barrio Adentro as organizers, planners, bureaucrats or practitioners, Cuban doctors were necessary precisely because the vast majority of Venezuelan doctors refused to take part in the program, even though the program initially sought them. The reasons, of course, vary. On the one hand, many refused to work for the proposed salary, given the fact that they could often make tens of times as much working in private clinics. There was also the fact that Barrio Adentro would take these doctors to parts of Venezuela that many of them had actively tried to avoid for the entirety of their lives – out of fear for their safety, racism, classism or – as is often the case – a mixture of the three. Finally, and not inconsequentially, given the fact that Barrio Adentro called for general family doctors, the hyper-specialization of doctors made them ill-qualified to deal with the quotidian – though by no means benign problems associated with poverty.

Cuban doctors continue to make up the vast majority of medical service providers in Barrio Adentro – and, anecdotally, Barrio Adentro modulos are still all but universally referred to here as ‘mis medicos cubanos.’ However, the government is trying to produce socially-minded domestic doctors to meet the needs of the country. Newly built medical schools are currently training over 17,000 Venezuelan doctors and a postgraduate residency program is training around 3,000 doctors in community medicine.

Aside from the care it provides on a daily basis to Venezuelans of all social classes, Barrio Adentro is also one of the best examples of how political discourse has shifted during the Bolivarian Revolution. At the outset of Barrio Adentro and its predecessors in the Plan Bolívar 2000, opposition parties attacked Chávez for attempting to turn the country into ‘another Cuba’ and questioned both means and ends of his massive social spending programs. Seven years later, the same parties which attacked Chavista ‘populist-communist-authoritarianism’ have shifted gears and now propose their own more conventionally recognizable as ‘populist’ programs in their pursuit to convince the majority of Venezuelans that managed neoliberalism is a better path than 21st Century Bolivarian Socialism.

Two examples of this opposition tactic illuminate the profound impact of Barrio Adentro. First, Manuel Rosales, former presidential candidate, governor of Zulia (Venezuela’s richest state) and founder of the anti-Chavista ‘centrist’ party Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) basically ran in 2006 on the platform of out-Chávez-ing Chávez. That is, he campaigned on keeping many of the social programs that have made Chávez so popular but to calm the antagonisms produced by the Bolivarians in foreign policy and domestic class relations while slipping extreme neo-liberal policies in through the back door of populist programs.Emblematic of this was his proposed ‘mi negra’ plan, in which all Venezuelans would receive a debit account in which monthly percentages of the nation’s oil revenues would be deposited. (I will not go into the overt racism flowing through the campaign. For the moment, I will only note that very few people were fooled by Rosales' insistance that the double entendre was clever and not offensive DID NOT go over well, as evidenced by his being trounced in the polls). The logic was that Chávez was being fiscally irresponsible in his deployment of oil money into public works projects and foreign aid. Much better, according to the ostensible un-populist opposition bloc which Rosales headed, was to give direct cash handouts to the people. The proposal of course fell apart with the opposition attempt for the presidency, but it should be noted that their attempts to pull away some of Chávez's base of support by "out-Chávezing-Chávez" via an über-populist ploy failed precisely because of their failure to adequately diagnose Chávez and the dialectic that exists between Chávez and 'the people.' Indeed, the opposition's approach in 'mi negra' -- emphasizing self interest, egoism and market logic while attempting to hijack key Chavista issues like the fight against corruption and bureaucracy -- failed not only to properly diagnose Chávez and 'the people' but also the very nature of the so-called 'populism' it tried to mold to its own purposes.

A second example is Primero Justicia’s (PJ) current “Casas de Justicia para Todos” project (hereafter, Casas). The Casas are almost exact copies of the Bolivarian Misión Barrio Adentro, offering medical services, legal assistance and haircuts. PJ’s latest (early August, 2007) public relations campaigns continue to focus on Chávez’s ostensible misappropriation of oil wealth as a foreign policy tool but have increasingly centered on two other recent campaigsn. First, their ‘Misión Vida’ criticizes the government for its failure to resolve endemic insecurity and some of the highest murder rates on the continent. Second, they – along a few Chavista parties and every other opposition party – are highly antagonistic to upcoming constitutional reforms proposed by Chávez which are reported to include the potential for perpetual presidential re-election, the redrawing of Venezuela’s jurisdictional map and the incorporation of the misiones’ mandate into the ‘hard’ constitutional code.

The opposition analysis here attempts to paint Chávez’s apparent current priorities – Anti-Imperialist foreign policy, constitutional reform and the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – as distanced from the ‘bread and butter issues’ most directly important to the people of Venezuela. Of course, it is important to note that these critiques tend to disproportionately place emphasis on Chávez the man rather than the processes of the Bolivarian Revolution. Indeed, this choice illuminates a profound miscalculation on the part of the Venezuelan opposition. They try to present themselves as being ‘with the people’ whereas by and large ‘the people’ see Chávez as ‘one of us,’ and opposition politicos as a bunch of rich assholes. Thus, while in the specific instance of PJ’s Casas, it is apparent that the opposition has to a certain extent acknowledged that it cannot make a serious, constitutional, challenge to the Bolivarian Revolution without maintaining the façade of the social programs which have made it so popular here and inspiring around the world. However, their calculations seem to be based on the assumption that the appeal of the Bolivarian Revolution is rooted in nothing more than fickle and trite self-interest.

Time will tell.

Regardless, the obvious redundancy of Casas and the contradictions of managed neoliberalism put opposition parties like UNT and PJ at an inherent disadvantage when they enter this terrain. Whether or not they can actually ever ‘out-Chávez-Chávez’ is less important historically and politically than the fact that they have been forced by the momentum of the times to enter that terrain to begin with and what that means for the future of the Revolution in Venezuela.