Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Who is the opposition anyway?

(part one of a partial answer)

(never thought I'd be here. These pictures are from the same march as the previous post. About 2 minutes after i hit 'publish' I recieved a call from friends saying 'we're in your neighborhood, come on down!

so i did.

this was the same march about 2 hours later. We ended up marching with the police because, well, they were on our side, and we on theirs. strangest fucking feeling in my life.)

(this guy is holding up a sign -- hard to read, bad lighting -- which reads 'Que cierren Miraflores?' or, "what if they closed Miraflores?' -- he brought it out for the police following the student which a Venezolana friend of mine shouted, right in his face, 'we're closing the white house, asshole!'
There really is little differetiation here between the opposition, the oligarchy, and capitalism's puppetmasters in the north. The US for obvious reasons often bears the brunt of people's ire -- though i have been recieved warmly by everyone and have never had to be held accountable for the sins of 'my nation.'

But at the same time, my friend's response definitely highlights the international awareness of the Bolivarian revolutionaries. They KNOW what they are up against and the battles in their future. How couldn't they? They've been fighting them for their entire lives.)

This photo is an entry into an answer to Cris’ deceptively simple question:

Who is the opposition, anyway?

The red specks are either flags, t-shirts, or some other such indication that the bearers of said articles were ‘rojo rojitos’ – Chavistas.
Along the march route, as we were with the police, we were able to experience a rather interesting example of the polarization of Venezuela today.
Many folks were booing the police, chanting
‘Son estudiantes, no son Golpistas!’
(‘They’re students, not Coup mongers’ – I have failed to come up with an adequate translation of ‘golpista.’ On the one hand, it could literally be translated as ‘coup-ist’ – and allusion to the April 2002 coup. And that could be sufficient. But the term has a lot more weight here, in that it also signifies the opposition tout court, the opposition as those who wish to violently derail the process. It is almost like saying ‘you are everything bad and wrong with the universe.’ It can also pure and simply mean that RCTV was one of the chief weapons of the coup, and hence those who support it, support the violent overthrow of the Revolution.)

But there were also a fair amount of people CHEERING the police.
Yeah, you read that correctly.

Rather than answering from the newspapers and books I´ve read, I decided to ask my students and colleagues. I’ve not fact-checked any of it as I think that perception is important, especially in determining political positions.

For the most part, the answers were pretty simple, almost Schmittian. The opposition is the middle class. The opposition is the upper classes. The opposition is whoever opposes the Bolivarian Revolution for whatever reason of personal interest they might have.
One of my colleagues threw some more light on it.
He described two levels of the Opp (and of course, there are more, some who are more violently opposed to the process than others, and etc.)
One is basically the upper upper class. The folks who own everything – many of whom are of fairly recent (1950´s-1970´s) European and North American extraction. These are the folks, who he thinks will oppose Chávez to the death.
There is a second tier (mind you, these two tiers are still within the ideologically upper tiered positions of the Opposition in his accounting. The ‘popular’ opposition didn’t really figure into his story, whatever ostensibly ‘popular’ opposition there might be) which he associates mostly with the middle class. These folks, according to his accounting, are nostalgic for the 70s, when the population was smaller, the urban population smaller still, and ‘it was nearly impossible not to make money here…back in the days when people called it ‘Saudi Venezuela.’’
These are solidly middle class folks, small business owners and the like.

When I suggested that the university students protesting in favor of RCTV might be sincerely believing they are fighting for freedom of speech rather than defending its polar opposite, that perhaps they have unwittingly fell into the hands of opposition politicos, he laughed. Most of these students, he asserted, would be perfectly happy to fall into those kinds of hands. University students tend to be middle class anyway, he thinks, and many of the universities represented in the opposition marches are private, meaning the moneyed population would be even greater.

(when I asked my students this very question – are those students in the streets against Chávez just being duped? – many of them responded by accusing the opposition students of being white.
‘Listen to the way they talk,’ they said.
‘Look at their skin, their clothes. What would you expect?’)

The one thing that unites all factions of the opposition, pretty much everyone conceded, is a fanatical hatred of the poor.

(It should be noted, like most bourgeois ideologies, the positions of the opposition tend to be rather contradictory. I was recently in a car with some opposition folks, playing the stupid tourist, trying to get their opinion on things. As we drove by Petare, a massive barrio in the extreme East of the city, they ran out of nasty things to say about the place, from racial slurs to comments on the smell. The long and short of their concern is that all, ALL, the folks living in Petare just want to be poor, just want easy money, don’t want to work.
Chávez, evil bastard that he is, wants to give THESE people money.
Later that evening, driving home with the same opposition folks, an indigenous woman with her child cinched to her hobbling at a very obviously very poorly set compound leg fracture was holding out a hand to the passing cars in the rain.
They looked at me and asked ‘Why doesn’t she go to the government for money? Why does she hassle normal people like us?’
They hate Chávez for giving the poor money, and they hate the poor for being poor.
The situation determines which they hate more: the existence of the poor, or the attempt to better their situation.)

Color plays into the general determination as well, with the Chavistas being more ‘of color’ than the opposition, although this is a tendency rather than a hard and fast rule.

Three days since the Change-over (...and counting)

(the view from Avenida Mexico at 12:05 Monday morning -- 5 minutes after the end of RCTV's public broadcasting concession)

Since the changeover of RCTV to TVES Caracas has been host to tit-for-tat marches all of which have been more or less peaceful. Both sides have mobilized en masse, with opposition marches and demonstrations tending to either start or dwell in the east of the city, where the municipal mayors are more sympathetic to their cause – mayors Lopez and Radonski, of Chacao and Baruta, respectively, have both attended various demonstrations since Sunday. The ‘tend’ should be emphasized, as today, a quite big student march went through my neighborhood traveling west. Chavistas, for their part, organized a massive march to Miraflores, the presidential palace yesterday, but have had less reason to engage in the political theater of the opposition.

(upside down Venezuelan flags have figured prominently in the opposition demonstrations. While the majority of demonstrators claim they have no pretentions to pursuing another coup, the symbolism should not be ignored)

(detail of Miraflores, the presidential palace, outlining the 5 motors of Bolivarian Socialism)

(Chavistas, yesterday before the rain)

(Opposition march, today -- Students have been on the front line of both sides' mobilizations around RCTV)

So far, there has been little in the way of direct clashes between Chavistas and Opposition, which seems to be at present what both sides want. At present, the ‘escalation’ threatened by many opposition politicians has yet to bear fruit.

(a sign from today's opposition march reads: "This is what we don't want!" with the caricature of a beret-ed figure butting heads with a head sans-hat-of-any-sort)

The rest of the hardcore opposition press (or in other words, Globovision and most of the newspapers) has been covering every utterance of the opposition as if these were the last days of the Bolivarian Revolution.

(I was alerted to today's opposition march by helicopters circling over my apartment building. At first, I thought it was the police. When I made my way out of the building and to the march-route, I saw that the majority of the helicopters were from the press, and were doing multiple close-sweeps of the marchers, much to their cheer.)

Chavez and his cabinet have for their part taken note of these claims, as well as the parallels to April 2002, when protests ‘went hot’ as the two sides clashed at Puente Llaguno, a coup, and a counter-coup ensued.

(Two views of the Puente Llaguno memorial taken during a Chavista march to Miraflores)

Globovision for its part has come under fire from the government for making veiled calls for Chávez to be assassinated (using an oh-so-crafty photo-montage of the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II and a Ruben Blades singing ‘have faith, this doesn’t end here’) while CNN en Español has had the subtlety to place pictures of Chávez next to photos of Al Qaeda militants and leaders. In a second ‘oopsie daisie that sort of thing just happens in journalism’ CNN played footage of a protest against the killing of a journalist in Cancun, Mexico, and claimed it was footage of Venezuelans protesting RCTV.

(I guess either: 1. CNN sucks; 2. They couldn’t get any State Department-prepackaged footage of Venezuela; or 3. They just think all them dern LAHteeenohs look alike anyway – [I mean, Venezuelans are just another type of Mexican, right?)

The opposition continues to treat this as an issue of freedom of expression, making the faulty assumption that there has ever been freedom of expression in a communications system dominated by multi-million dollar transnationals. Chavistas, on the other hand, tend to be more sincere, often openly admitting that they have little time for the liberal ‘rights’ arguments of the opposition and the rich. They argue that TVES, the new station, will finally offer the public entertainment that reflects their values and the values the revolutionaries are trying to create. That is, rather than an ethos of individualism and rampant consumerism, TVES will provide educational services and entertainment that doesn’t come at the cost of the community’s health and well-being. Most importantly, TVES will never engage in the coup-mongering and manipulation of RCTV.

The only question that remains, truthfully, is whether or not Bolivarian telenovelas will be as popular

Sunday, May 27, 2007

further reading...

well, today is the day is the day.
i attended a rather sparsely attended opposition rally yesterday, today will feature marches from both sides.

some further reading on RCTV:

George Ciccariello-Maher provides insight on the oligarchy, RCTV, and Freedom of Speech:

Patrick MeElwee de-pants some NGO positions on Venezuela:

and Chris Carlson exposes links between the US department of State and Venezuelan opposition jounalists:


Friday, May 25, 2007

Burning Out AND Fading Away: The Opposition and RCTV

This is an article, draft of one anyway, that i doubt is going to make any deadlines within the effectiveness timeline. situates the RCTV situation with an analysis of the opposition's developing strategy around it...

interesting trivia before i get into it...last night i was in Altamira, a rather solidly antiChavez neighborhood, visiting friends. At 8, a cacelorazo began in support of RCTV that lasted for about 15-20 minutes. In my neighborhood, less solidly antiChavez but by no means 'rojo rojito,' my housemates inform me that a few people took part. This evening, as i am posting this very post, i heard one feeble pot get banged for about 20 seconds, then nothing, as if to prove my point.

so, without further ado, here's the article (i'll go out for the shinanigans this weekend, so i can promise more pictures in the near future...)

Since the approval of a new constitution in 2000, the newly named Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been the site of an unprecedented democratic rebirth. In the process, widely accepted notions of democracy, socialism, and resistance to neoliberalism have been and continue to be rewritten. With the reelection of President Hugo Chávez Frias in December 2006, the development of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’ or ‘21st Century Socialism’ has accelerated, with massive redistributions of wealth and the investment of the country’s ample petrol profits into social programs aimed at making a new model of society, one oriented toward human rather than economic development, possible.

The Bolivarian process, which draws its name from the anti-Imperialist Independence hero Simón Bolívar, has since its inception drawn the ire of the Empire and its representatives among the upper classes. Venezuela’s poor, on the other hand, have proven their enthusiasm for the revolution and its aims on countless occasions. The latest chapter in the struggle between democratic social transformation in Venezuela and the interests of the old order is set to come to a head this weekend, with the ‘closing’ of Caracas-based channel 2, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). Last December, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that the state would not renew RCTV’s concession, a national television station affiliated with Telemundo, a US-based Spanish-language station owned by, among others, NBC. This weekend, on the 27th of May, RCTV’s time on the public airwaves will officially come to an end, prompting both sides of the debate to prepare for a massive confrontation.

‘Closure’ without Closure

Since last December, the opposition in this country has mobilized in the streets of Caracas and on the international scene, launching an international Public Relations campaign that has captured the hearts of Pope Benedict XVI, former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar’s People’s Party (and their analogues in the European Union Parliament in alliance with the EU socialist bloc), and various other enemies of the Bolivarian revolution on the world scene. Chief among the claims of the opposition has been that RCTV is being ‘closed,’ that Chávez is closing the door on dissent in Venezuela, and that this incident exposes Chávez for the dictator the opposition has always known him to be.

However, the truth of the matter remains that RCTV is not being ‘closed.’ The station will no longer hold a place on the VHF – or public and governmentally regulated – airwaves. RCTV, which boasts a 53 year history of broadcasting in Venezuela, can and in all reality will, continue to broadcast via its cable analogue available on DirectTV. While it is certainly true that the move will drastically reduce their access to the public, it is also certainly true that the station only has itself to blame for its situation. In the words of a Houston Chronicle editorial from February of this year, “it’s doubtful [RCTV’s] actions would last more than a few minutes with the FCC [in the U.S.].” The station has been fined, sanctioned, and temporarily shut down numerous times throughout its lifetime, the lion’s share of them before Chávez’s presidency. This most recent censure is able to be more permanent only because the station’s 20-year broadcast concession has expired. In such an instance, just as in any other state in the world, the government of said state enjoys the discretion as to determine whether or not the concession is to be renewed. The government’s decision not to renew the concession has been a long time in the making.

A History of Bad Behavior

Among RCTV’s offences include (all before the Chávez era): Tendentious news coverage (1976: station was closed for three days); Sensationalist programming (1980: closed for 36 hours); Airing pornographic scenes (1981: closed for 24 hours); Airing (illegal) advertisements for cigarettes (1989: closed for 24 hours); in 1991 ‘la escuelita’ a segment of the program ‘Radio Rachela’ was suspended. RCTV has been in default for tax payments for three years. In other words, RCTV has a history of obnoxious behavior and lowest-common-denominator productions, a fact that even opposition politicians and bloggers acknowledge.

Transgressions against ‘good taste’ aside, RCTV has been among the junta of television, newspaper, and radio outlets who have been undermining and calling for the ouster – by any means necessary – of democratically-elected president Hugo Chávez since he first took office. In April, 2002, RCTV aired manipulated footage of the Puente Llaguno incident where 20 people were killed and many more injured in the lead up to a failed coup blessed by the United States and orchestrated by the official trade union – the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) – and high military officials. RCTV’s behavior both before and during the short-lived coup is exemplary of the private media’s dubious activities throughout the past 10 years in Venezuela. Most notoriously, the footage of the scene at Puente Llaguno aired by RCTV gave the impression that Chávista demonstrators were firing on unarmed opposition protestors, an impression emphasized by the voice-over of a commentator. (The manipulation of footage, now international common knowledge thanks to documentaries such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a point the opposition in Venezuela continues to deny). Once Chávez had been abducted from Miraflores (the presidential palace) and taken to La Orchila, a military installation based off the coast, RCTV – along with all of the other major private television stations – enforced a media blackout around the response to the coup by Caracas’ poorest residents. Rather than reporting that a military coup had taken place, RCTV erroneously claimed Chávez had resigned. When the residents of the city’s barrios and ranchos took to the Capital’s streets demanding his return, RCTV aired reruns of North American cartoons.

Leo Campos, a journalist who worked for RCTV during the time of the coup has described the way management ordered the news staff not to cover the popular responses to the coup. Policy during that April, he has said, was to present to the viewing public in Caracas and across the country a picture of tranquility and normalcy. Images of metropolitan police attacking barrio protests, roadblocks by Chávez supporters, and the emergence of a letter written by Chávez himself denouncing false reports of his resignation were strictly verboten. Campos, who has said of himself: “no soy chavista, pero no soy estúpido (I’m not a chavista, but I’m not stupid),” and numerous other employees of RCTV have come forward since the 2002 coup and exposed the extent to which anti-Chavista editorial policy not only colored news coverage, but actually often created it.

Thus what is perhaps most surprising about this situation is not that RCTV is losing its concession but rather than it is only finally happening now and in a manner so attentive to a preexisting legal process. That is to say, despite the fact that – even in an era of entrenched global neoliberalism – sovereign governments retain control over public airwaves, and despite RCTV’s long history of malicious and illegal behavior, it is not being ‘closed.’ Despite the open antagonism between Chávez, his supporters, and the private media, this ‘closure’ is not taking place under the auspices of presidential decree or vengeful regulation but rather in the simple choice, in the words of one prominent piece of Caracas political street art, ‘to not renew the lies.’

RCTV in Context

The Venezuelan opposition needs a victory. Registration in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), which seeks to deepen and democratize the Bolivarian Revolution, surpassed 3 million aspiring militants after just three weeks of open registration in 5 states. The price of oil continues to rise, giving the Chávez government more money to spend on its massively popular public support programs. The opposition mayor of Baruta (a municipality in Southeastern Caracas) Herique Capriles Radonski’s trial for agitation against the Cuban embassy during the 2002 coup is set to begin anew. In short, in nearly every sector of Venezuelan socio-political life, the Bolivarian Revolution is consolidating its position. Meanwhile, the opposition – once ostensibly united in its anti-Chávez zeal – is splintering. Just this week, the directors of Proyecto Venezuela, COPEI, and Primero Justicia announced the initiation of talks aimed at forming an opposition block distinct from that of Manuel Rosales, the former candidate for President. While such political divisions do not diminish the real threat the opposition continues to pose to the Bolivarian process, these schisms push them towards more and more extreme measures.

Aside from the emerging disunity among political parties, the once coherent anti-Chavista bloc of private media outlets is also eroding. When RCTV goes off the public airwaves, Globovisión, which pulls in roughly 6% of the viewing public, will be the last remaining anti-Chavista stalwart. Venevisión, another one of the ‘golpista’ networks has recently changed its tune, softening its position vis-à-vis the government and Televen has brought the program “José Vincent Hoy” a talk show hosted by Chávez’s former Vice President, José Vincent Rangel.

What has emerged as the current strategy of the limping Venezuelan opposition seems to be two-pronged. The first, and most successful front is in the international arena, which quite frankly has always been more perceptive to their misrepresentations and decontextualized claims than the Venezuelan public. The opposition’s claim that RCTV’s ‘closure’ is an attack on freedom of speech and other liberal-democratic values is easily swallowed in countries – such as the United States – where Venezuela has been painted as today’s emerging Gulag Archipelago by allied media outlets such as the New York Times. This strategy has been unsurprisingly successful, with EU parliament as well as the US senate passing resolutions condemning the situation in Venezuela as represented to them by Marcel Granier – RCTV’s outspoken president – and others. It bears mentioning, however, that this support from abroad really does little to harm the Bolivarian Revolution, as it is coming from countries that have already – and in no uncertain terms – established themselves as antagonistic to the means and ends of the Venezuelan government.

The second aspect of the strategy requires some sort of unification of foreign support with a domestic taste for pop culture. That is to say, the oppositions considers RCTV’s popularity to be a much-needed inroad to the process’s base in the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society. They seem to think that the public’s desire for lurid programming and important telenovelas will trump their support of the social transformations the station has attacked since day one. The fallacy at play here, of course, is that the viewing public watches RCTV for its political positions rather than its entertainment content. Otherwise, there would be no reason to believe suitable alternatives couldn’t be found.

For sure, even the Venezuelan opposition – which has really and truly excelled in making the worst possible decisions at the worst possible moments – ought to be able to predict the unlikelihood of such a connection (EU declarations and the residents of Caracas’ sprawling ranchos) or such a decision (‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ versus Mission Barrio Adentro) in the case of RCTV. They see their strategy’s chances for success as being bolstered by a food crisis in the country which has been developing since the government began regulating the prices in the ‘Cesta Básica Venezolana’ (foodstuffs comprising the common Venezuelan diet). Such a strategy emphasizes, if nothing else, the contempt the Venezuelan opposition holds for the majority of the country’s population. Without the bread and circuses of Chávez and his sycophants, or so the logic goes, the masses will return to their rightful places as the passively downtrodden of the Fourth Republic (allowing, of course for the occasional Caracazo).

This strategy will fail. In terms of food shortages, the opposition’s argument that meat is scarce and expensive due to peasant land seizures and aggressive land reform misses the point that the redistribution of illegitimately held fincas is helping far more poor Venezuelans than the concentration of ownership in a few hands. This of course not to deny that Venezuela is on the cusp of a food crisis. However, this reality has far more to do with the disproportionate dependence on imports and supply side sabotage than state attempts to build food sovereignty through the redistribution of property. What is more, the recent activities on the part of large rural landholders, ranchers, and slaughterhouse owners reported in the nation’s papers have not helped anti-Chavismo’s public appeal.

These crucial miscalculations on the part of the opposition follow a long line of blunders based on a rather deep disdain for the majority of the population. Their ‘reverse bread and circuses logic’ – that the general public is so enamored with RCTV’s roster of scantily clad women and imported telenovelas that they will rise up in arms against the government should they lose access to the opiate of the masses – have been disproved in the final weeks of the station’s VHF career. Demonstrations denouncing the government’s decision have been met with counterdemonstrations of equal size and passion. Former employees of the station have stepped forward to expose the veracity of the government’s justifications for not renewing the concession. In short, the opposition and RCTV’s attempts to present themselves as innocent victims are losing more and more of what little basis they had every day.

Shooting Themselves in the Foot (again)

A United States-sanctioned coup already failed once. The opposition is absolutely bereft of popular support. A series of crucial miscalculations (starting in 2002, extending through the boss’ strike, the recall referendum, and the boycott of 2005 assembly elections) has left them without institutional foothold. This weekend will expose, if nothing else, the extent of the Venezuelan opposition’s desperation. Unfortunately for the opposition, recent events point toward an explosive weekend.

As their legal options continue to fail them, some segments of the opposition have resorted to issuing threats of violent anti-government disturbances should they not get their way. Last Sunday (May 20), Julio Andrés Borges, general director of the opposition party Primero Justicia (PJ) wrote in an opinion column in Últimas Noticias, “In one week it will be the 27th of May. I hope that blood doesn’t come to the street and the government corrects its decision.” The implication, of course, is that the showdown over RCTV, which has seen marches in the capital and a nearly 24-hour propaganda campaign by Globovisión and RCTV, will turn violent unless Chávez backs down.

On Monday (May 21), interior minister Pedro Carreño announced that weekend raids by various police and state officials uncovered three arms caches attached to plots around this weekend’s ‘closure’ of RCTV. Among the weapons discovered throughout the city were pistols, rifles, shotguns, and bulletproof vests as well as stores of ammunition, laptop computers, and mass info-storage devices. In other words, both the public and clandestine fronts of the opposition seem to be spoiling for a fight.

Should the opposition choose ‘the armed path’ this weekend, however, their biggest concern should not be the inevitability of their being crushed by the Venezuelan military. Rather, the crucial blow to the opposition’s position would be the popular reaction to any of their attempts to disrupt public order after RCTV’s ‘closure.’ In a full-page announcement published on Thursday, four urban and campesino organizations (Frente Nacional Campesino Exequiel Zamora, Frente Nacional Comunal Simón Bolívar, Colectivo Alexis Vive, and the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar) made public their ‘contingency plans’ (under the heading ‘Oligarchs Tremble!’) in the eventuality of a violent weekend. Later that day, representatives of the organizations demonstrated in front of the FEDECÁMARAS (the Venezuelan chamber of commerce, widely seen as a symbol of the 2002 coup and of the interests of the oligarchs) to prove their point, spray-painting slogans denouncing the hoarding of basic goods and the opposition’s appeal to foreign intervention in their wake. What is damning about such developments for the opposition is not the threat of ‘popular justice’ nor of fighting a two-fronted insurrection. Rather, what positions such as that of ‘Oligarchs Tremble!’ point to the fact that the opposition’s strategy around RCTV has only succeeded in further diminishing the already miniscule amount of sympathy the majority of Venezuelans hold for them (an almost unimaginable feat in and of itself).

In short, should the opposition ‘go hot’ at the end of RCTV’s VHF career, the only sympathy they will find after their inevitable defeat will come from those they already count among their friends: the US state department and the expatriate oligarchs currently buying property in Miami. Their gamble, aimed at inserting themselves between the government and its impressive base of popular support, may well be among their last.

Better fotos and promises...

First the better fotos:

I wrote earlier about a photographer friend of mine who was here during my first few weeks. He has since returned to the states and began the process of posting the 7,000,000,000,000,000,000 rolls of film he shot while here. The first are available at

along with some of his other work. He'll be posting more as he scrapes together the money to process them, so please check it out, often. Especially you, Sam.

Second the promises:

I am trying to hash something together on what promises to be an eventful weekend (see previous post on RCTV) and will try to get it up later this afternoon or evening...

hope everyone is having fun...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Some Up and Coming Crises:

1.)The ‘Closing’ of RCTV

The government has refused to renew the concession to Canal 2, Radio Caracas TeleVision (associated with the NBC owned Spanish language network Telemundo). I have written about this before. Despite protests to the contrary, the station is not being ‘closed.’ It can, and in all reality will, remain on the air, if only on cable. That is, to analogize to the US, it will shift to being something like the USA network rather than ABC.

Despite the reality of the situation, the opposition has mobilized en masse around the station. With assistance from their comrades abroad – former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar’s People’s Party and its larger EU coalition of Christian Democrat parties, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Pope Benedict XVI, Amnesty International, and other either well intentioned toadies of liberalism or outright evildoers– the opposition has attempted to turn this into an issue of freedom of expression and all that is well and good in the world. The ‘closure’ of RCTV, so say the escaulidos, is evidence of their plight, Chávez’s attack on freedom, and the need for regime change here as soon as possible.

The station is set to lose its concession at midnight on the 27th of this month. In the final moments of the campaign to ‘save’ RCTV, the opposition, as they have done in the past – most notably in the 2006 elections – have separated into a ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine. The ‘mainstream’ opposition, headed by former ‘Atrevete’ presidential candidate and current governor of the state of Zulia, Manuel Rosales, maintains a ‘centrist’ public position, demanding Chávez renege his position qua RCTV while calling for peaceful demonstrations and appeals to various international bodies. The ‘harder’ opposition, characterized for example by the party Primero Jusiticia (PJ) and its general director Julio Andrés Borges has resorted to making thinly veiled threats of immanent violence should RCTV’s signal revert to public hands next Sunday. From today’s (Sunday, 20 May) Últimas Noticias:

“In one week it will be the 27th of May. I hope that blood doesn’t come to the street and the government corrects its decision.”

The government is preparing for the worse, as are the more radical and autonomous currents of Chavismo. (Recall if you will, during the most recent elections, when the opposition made not so very veiled threats to seek extra-parliamentary means to take power if and when they lost the election, formations such as the Tupamaro movement developed rather elaborate ‘contingency plans’ – as they have had to in the past – to protect their barrios and retake the city).

However, the inevitability of another coup, another boss’ strike, or the explosion of an open, protracted and ‘hot’ civil war is not altogether certain. What is the opposition losing here? In reality, little more than a propaganda vehicle, even though the station is more popular amongst the general populace for its soap operas and other lurid programming than for its often outright racist and generally reactionary political line. The question is, how desperate are they? The other private media outlets (Globovision, Televen, Venevisión – pretty much everything excepting the state sponsored VTV, the youth oriented Avila TV (founded by Alcaldía Mayor Juan Barreto) and the regional TeleSur) continue to enjoy their concessions and have been running nonstop propaganda campaigns against the government since 1998. That is to say, the opposition continues to enjoy a near monopoly concerning the access to and provision of news and information to the population.

Strategically speaking, then, RCTV makes for a good sacrificial lamb. Rest assured, they have been and will continue to put up a good fight, financed by the oligarchy’s deep pockets and produced by the best in Latin American postmodern agitprop. Once closed, however, RCTV will be spun as definitive evidence of the Bolivarian Revolution’s Orwellian nature. In other words, they cannot lose.

Or can they?

This, of course, is where the calculus gets tricky. A CIA sponsored coup already failed once. The opposition is absolutely bereft of popular support. A series of crucial miscalculations (starting in 2002, extending through the boss’ coup, the recall referendum, and then the partial boycott of the 2006 election) has left them without institutional foothold. Another failed rebellion would register an all but fatal blow to their future prospects at thwarting the Bolivarian Revolution. But then again, the opposition has really and truly excelled in making the worst possible decisions at the worst possible moments.

We already know how RCTV is going to be spun in the US, and the government here knows it cannot crack the entertainment-industrial complex’s hold over US audiences. But what opposition politicos are cracking their heads over at the present is the likelihood of transforming the close of RCTV’s VHF life into a much needed victory (at this point, the opposition is enjoying its righteous victim status, bourgeois drips that they are, but there has to be a limit to their ability to absorb Chavista victory after Chavista victory). The question is further complicated, then, by this very fact – that the opposition doesn’t have much going for them any longer. This desperation might indeed propel them toward more extreme responses to the inevitable end of RCTV on the public airwaves next week.

The immediate resolution will sort itself out on the 27th of this month, at 11:59 pm, when the concession evaporates and canal 2 returns to public hands.

2.) Meat and other basic commodity shortages
Since the government has initiated a series of price controls on basic food commodities, producers and market speculators have quietly initiated a series of mounting sabotage measures: refusing to sell meat, delaying shipments, locking warehouses, selling exclusively to black market vendors and (illegally) to external markets. These responses have all the more impact in that Venezuela imports nearly 75% of its food. One of the government’s biggest goals has been to build food sovereignty as a means of making itself more autonomous from the whims of international pressures (an increasingly difficult task, given the predominantly urban nature of the country). While this does offer the prospect of a steady flow of guaranteed income for agribusiness, it doesn’t offer the short term allure of profit maximization that accompanies the ‘invisible hand’ of competition.

While there has been talk of a partial nationalization of some food production resources, most polls indicate this is an extremely unpopular track. Meanwhile, even Mercal’s shelves – the government sponsored markets that sell basic foodstuffs at the set price (in packaging with illustrated explanations of the 1999 constitution, no less! The most democratic lentils I have ever eaten, by far!) – are increasingly bare.

The opposition has been spinning this as hard as they can. Globovision’s ‘¡Alo Ciudadano!’ (a response to Chavez’s surprisingly popular ‘¡Alo Presidente!’ comprised almost entirely of Rush Limbaugh style banter and sound bite manipulation) is running segments titled ‘the only way to find meat in Venezuela.’ (One of which I saw featured a man stealing a fallen Gazelle from a hungry Cheetah and had a slightly Benny Hill feel to it). Newspapers – both those which are rabidly opposition and the more ‘objective’ sources – have been running surveys of which markets have what, for how much, and for how long, with extremely basic foodstuffs such as black beans and powdered milk almost perpetually in the ‘No Hay’ column.

While I don’t want to diminish the reality of people’s fears over their food, and don’t want to understate the reality that less meat is available and can often only be found at inflated prices when it is, hamburger stands remain open and popular, and the tascas are still serving parillas. The most comical moment around all this has to have been the afternoon I listened to an opposition acquaintance complain about how Chávez is starving the country of meat while eating beef soup.

All this is not to say a crisis isn’t brewing here. Far from it. The ingrained culture of corruption, the thriving informal sector and black market (almost as big if not bigger than the formal, above ground economy), and the strength of the opposition’s desire to destabilize the government and derail the ongoing process of the revolution make the current situation fertile ground for future unrest. The fact that it will inevitably be the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society – Chávez’s base of support – who are hit hardest by the food crisis, is presumably the opportunity opposition politicians and supporters are waiting for. If they can weaken Chávez’s popular support, or so such a logic would go, they might be able to pull off another 11th, but this time without its 13th.

3.) Recall of various elected officials
This has the potential of being less of a crisis and more a breath of fresh air. As it stands a number of Chavista and Opposition politicians are in the early stages of being recalled by their constituencies. Article 72 of Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution states that all publicly elected offices are open to recall once they pass the halfway point of their terms. To make the referendum happen, a petition must be signed by 20% of registered voters. A Venezuelan friend, speaking of those Chavistas facing recalls, put it this way: “this is a very good thing. These guys have the support of the government, of Chávez, who has incredible sway with the population. They have the funds to do what they want, and the political office. And what do they do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” He then went on to list the luxuries state money had been spent on by the governor of his home state of Carabobo.

This all comes back to a long history of political corruption, cronyism and clientelism in Venezuela and the widespread popular belief that all politicians are scum. The recalls are seen as a way for popular pressure to bring the political class back into line, to purge it of its careerists and opportunists. The trouble is, this could be a point of division between the various wings of Chavismo, with the end result of a long process being the radicalization of the movement and the exodus of its members from the traditional political class (all the better, I say, but realistically…). That is, while this doesn’t necessarily pose a significant threat to the deepening of the revolution – in fact, the perception amongst those who want to deepen the revolution is that a purge of corrupt elements is absolutely necessary – when accompanied by the formation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), the danger of fragmentation and desertion of certain sectors increases.

4.) Formation of the PSUV

I have written a bit about the PSUV elsewhere on this blog, so I needn’t go through it again. And truth be told, there isn’t all that much to say at present. It is forming. This weekend marks the closure of inscription in Caracas, Zulia, Lara and Miranda. Next week, the inscription process begins in the rest of the country. General elections for party positions, organized in 200 person-or-so communal blocs, will take place later this year.

And that’s about that.

The problem already is, however, that Chávez’s cal for all parties allied to the revolution to dissolve and help form a mass party has been meeting some resistance. There has been understandable, if not always entirely sincere, reticence on the part of some of Chávez’s formerly fiercest allies. And Chávez hasn’t responded well.

For example, when PODEMOS, a four year old offshoot from the Movement for Socialism (MAS) that has always been allied to Chávez wavered at his call for them to close shop and tighten the ranks, he referred to their position as ‘that of the opposition. This ‘you’re with me or against me’ line is not changing too many minds among the heads of parties like PODEMOS, Patria Para Todos, or the Partido Comunista de Venezuela. However, there has been a fair amount of registration and migration from these parties to the PSUV. One PCV friend said ‘I might inscribe in the PSUV, if it seems it will help the revolution, but I’m not sure I agree with the position of the party directors nor with Chávez about the issue.’ The PCV sees such positions as a sort of ‘double militancy’ which the directorate has deemed unacceptable.

Thus, while parties like the PCV have repeatedly emphasized they want their autonomy but remain dedicated to the revolution, the details of their position as contrasted with that of Chávez makes a massive, zero sum ideological and realpolitik showdown all but inevitable. While the likelihood of a party like the PCV or PODEMOS joining the opposition may seem unlikely, this hasn’t stopped groups like Bandera Roja, a supposedly ultraleftish communist-ish party, or Teodoro Petkoff, one of MAS’s founders, from standing side by side with people who think Pinochet was the best thing to ever happen to Chile.

It seems to me that the general popular distrust of established parties and the widespread perception that outsiders and new projects are the best choice to avoid the ills of the past can only help the PSUV at this stage, though failure to follow through on its promise to be ‘the most democratic party on the continent’ will quickly hinder the pursuit of its ambitions.

Registration in the PSUV, at last count and after three weekends of inscription, stood at 1,600,000 aspiring members.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Documentary on RCTV

Anyone with a quick and dependable enough internet connection (excluding yours truly) ought to be able to watch this documentary titled 'Digan la Verdad' (Tell the Truth) about the 'closure' of RCTV and the status of freedom of expression in Venezuela. As mentioned, I've yet to see the whole thing through, so reviews would be well appreciated.

...And the link:

On the Five Motors of Bolivarian Socialism

The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, in its most recent and most radical phase, is developing along 5 thematic axes. They manifest in theory and practice quite visibly in Caracas in propaganda, communal council elections, the formation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, the various Misiones, and in the countless debates and discussions – both organized and impromptu – taking place throughout the city.


First Motor: The Enabling Law
Chavez ran and was re-elected by a decisive margin in 2006 with the promise of doing what needed to be done to create a new form of socio-political organization in Venezuela, what is being called ‘21st Century Socialism.’ The enabling law, which critics to the north consider to be a mandate for despotism and rule by decree, allows Chavez to bypass the legislature to enact laws and prioritize government projects.

(Funny…the state department didn’t mind when Chavez’ neoliberal predecessors in Venezuela and throughout the world used these very same constitutional powers in the service of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ Fiscal responsibility, of course, is a euphemism for structural adjustment, or the economic and political reorganization of a country in the maximum interests of [most often transnational] business. This is the stuff of privatization of state industries, tariff removal, new commodity frontiers [the most notorious example of late being the commodification of water], and the slashing of social spending in education, healthcare, and infrastructure…).

The enabling laws are supposed to last for a year, and some of the highlights of what Chávez has already enacted have been laws regarding the re-nationalization of key industries (for example, the May 1st re-nationalization of the oil fields around the Orinco river, the telecom company CANTV [privatized in 1991, the lion’s share of which was held by Verizon], electricity providers…he’s basically attempting to undo all that was done at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund by his predecessors. These gestures have been given more weight given Venezuela’s exit from both international organizations in April this year [after, it is worth noting, paying back its debt]. This his been long in the making, and the IMF’s offices in Caracas had been closed for a year before Venezuela’s official exit).

The most interesting thing about this first motor, however, is that it doesn’t seem to be all in all necessary. Venezuela, since the new constitution of 1999, has a unicameral legislature. At a late stage in the 2006 election, when it became obvious that a Chavista sweep was all but inevitable, many opposition parties called for a boycott of the elections and pulled their candidates. The result, along with the widespread popular support of the floatilla of parties then associated with the Chavista project, has been an all-but purely Chavista legislature. In other words, there seems little doubt that Chavez could have passed legislatively all that he has done by decree since he received the mandate of the enabling law.

So, why is it necessary?

I can offer only two tentative hypotheses. The first has to do with the particular historical moment. That is to say, Venezuela is ready for socialism. The country has endured capitalism at its most cutthroat and socially polarizing glory – obscene wealth abutting abject poverty, transnational supermodels in one zone, no running water and 40 shooting-death weekends in another. The result is a society ready to tear itself apart, with the Opposition hoping a cataclysm would allow for the managed chaos of the fourth republic to return (with the various factions of the opposition taking different positions. The oligarchy has had and continues to have enough private security and international contacts to weather most storms. The middle classes long for the days with the police and military maintained the border between the barrios and the center, keeping the poor out of their metropolis). The more most radical Chavista sectors hope to blast through the current antagonisms and into new models of human cohabitation based on socialist ideals. In other words, socialism now.

This alludes to my second hypothesis, that the first motor is necessitated by a widespread public distrust of and distaste for the political class. In general, politicians here are seen as corrupt bourgeois careerist opportunists, more interested in a post and the opportunity to bilk the public coffers than work toward the public good. (This is, by the by, a perception applied to opposition and Chavista legislators alike, and why the current spate of referenda are being applied to ineffective legislators of all stripes). The ley habilitante is in this manner a way of sidestepping politicians, their gridlock, and their greed. This popular disdain for politicians and the ‘old way’ of doing politics is most explicitly manifested in the final motor of the revolution, Popular power, but it plays an important informing role in all aspects of its unfolding.

Second Motor: Constitutional Reform
The gist of this motor is basically to make up for what holes remain in the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 in the pursuit of 21st century socialism, and requires the convocation of another constituent assembly. An example: while maintaining private property rights, projected reforms would introduce communal and social property regimes into the law of the land and protect them with just as much protection (and, hopefully MORE than) that exists for private property. Another thing, which I am rather interested in is the introduction and refinement of directly democratic measures relating to the Communal Councils and the fifth motor, the explosion of popular power. This is also ostensibly why Chávez has been pushing so hard to organize the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) as a mass front, incorporating the traditional left as it goes forward. The logic, in other words, is that without a united, popular front, the reform of the constitution will be coopted by more conservative sectors of Chavismo. A united front via the PSUV in this regard forms a socio-political bloc to be reckoned with, that can push the revolution forward and realize its most radical potentials rather than being forced into lukewarm reforms and impotent half-measures.

Another constitutional reform he’s mentioned is jettisoning the two-term limit for presidents. For Chavistas, this is cause for celebration. The opposition, on the other hand, is looking for houses in Miami (the result of which, as per my experience and according to the daily Úlitimas Noticias has been a 90% drop in apartment or room rentals. More folks are looking to sell their places outright and move north to join the gusanos and their patrons in the Empire).

Third Motor: ‘Morals and Enlightenment’ – Popular Education
This motor has to do with education, and with the need that in order to build socialism, one must first instill socialist values amongst the populace through a wide-ranging reappraisal of the education system. In Chavez’s words: “Education isn’t only about the study of some particular material or finished by the sixth grade, no, it is much more than that, it is about values, culture, solidarity. It is an ethical revolution, which is why I take the important sentence of Bolívar in Angostura: ‘Morals and Enlightenment are the poles of a republic.’”

The anecdotal funny bit about this has to do with Chávez’ mannerisms while delivering his near countless public addresses. This is a man who to speak. And who loves maps. Even better, he loves to speak and use maps. He never misses an opportunity to interrupt a speech occasioned by the visit of a foreign notable or head of state (thus far I’ve seen it with the Presidents of Laos and Gambia and the Nobel Lauret Mohammed Yunnus – but more on him later) to ask the audience “do you know where (insert country of origin of the notable here) is? You should, we need to know the world, to be familiar with it.” He then pulls out a map and draws all over it, circles, arrows, estimated distances…today, while speaking with Yunnus, he drew an approximation of the global tropical zone, arguing that the people of Venezuela and Bangladesh can build on their common love of mangoes and build a more just, multipolar and south-south world. The point is not so much the third world alliance rhetoric here, but rather the moments where Chávez steps out of his orator persona and steps into a more didactic one, playing the teacher to his television audience. The moral delivered: everything is an opportunity to build knowledge, and knowledge properly deployed is one of the most important and effective tools the population has in its battle against imperialism.

Of course, the rather vague ideas animating the ‘Morals y Luces’ will extend beyond geography lessons. They already have – in Cuban style literacy campaigns, the establishment of government schools in the poorest barrios, popular education around the 1999 constitution, and more. The point Chávez is trying to emphasize, however, is that there needs to be more that just more education, there needs to be a different kind of education, different things taught. Otherwise ‘21st century socialism’ will look a lot like 20th century capitalism.

Fourth Motor: The New Geometry of Power
After the failed 1992 Coup, and after he was released from prison, Chavez and Company engaged in a protracted analysis and charting project diagnosing the cartography of economic, political, and cultural power in Venezuela. The construction of 21st century socialism, they have concluded, requires the reconfiguration, in spatio-cultural terms, who has access to the exercise of power in Venezuela. The ‘new geometry’ seeks to make ‘power’ a popular concept, without the mediation of absentee representatives or the elitism and exclusiveness of the oligarchs who have hoarded the benefits of this resource-rich nation since the colonial era.

This strikes me, for reasons which will soon be apparent, as distinctly more than fetishization of ‘decentralization’ and ‘civil society’ which were de rigeur in many academic and activist circles in the 1990s. That is to say, whereas the aforementioned projects, associated with regionalism and the NGO boom, often if unwittingly served the interests of global neoliberal economic interests, this new geometry has more to do with direct and meaningful participation in the processes that determine the course of the life of the nation.

Fifth Motor: The Explosion of Communal Power
This is the most important of the motors. Without it, everything else is just window dressing. The idea of communal power, as it is developing here, has to do with the direct participation of communities in the political life of the nation. Communities at present are being organized on a small scale (in roughly 200 person blocs) for the task of self-government. In Chavez’s own plans, the development of communal councils seeks to make the central government unnecessary, replacing it with an adaptive/responsive ‘protagonistic democracy’ where citizenship and action are synonymous and the mediating function of the bureaucracy is minimized to all but infrastructural ends. In Chávez’s own words, this explosion’s task is to “dismantle the bourgeois state” because all states “were born to prevent revolutions.” [by the by, I lifted that quote from a Greg Wilpert article on, a most definitely worthwhile info source on current events here]

So can they do it? What will happen when/if Communal power ‘explodes’? Can the ‘masses’ be trusted? Is all this just bread and circuses?

It seems to me that it has been exploding, in stages to be sure, but announcing its presence to the world and Venezuelan society and the world in unequivocal terms nonetheless. The most obvious example would be the counter-coup of April 2002, when the oil and media oligarchies attempted to reinstall the 4th republic order and were stopped by a massive, popular mobilization demanding Chavez’s return. What is most important about this, however, is not the mandate it exhibited for Chavez and the revolutionary path (indeed, there was a shift in favor of conservative factions within the Chavez bloc after the coup). Rather, this was a moment, if you’ll pardon the Deleuzian nomenclature, of a molar intervention. That is to say, the countercoup of April 2002 was a surfacing of the social networks which have been forming and evolving since (at least) the Caracazo of 1989. It was not and should not be depicted as a purely spontaneous reaction to the coup. To claim such would be to project a profound naïvete about Venezuelan political reality. The countercoup was a mobilization of unprecedented scale in defense of the Bolivarian revolution.

So can they do this thing?

I dare you to tell them they can’t.

on colombia

this is an article from about alvaro uribe, president of colombia. a bit of an row between venezuela and colombia has basically been on-going since Uribe was elected.

May 17, 2007

The Godfather of Colombia
Uribe and the Para Scandal

Just months after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez's landslide re-election in May 2006, some critics began pointing to 'cracks in the pedestal' of his popularity. The ongoing brouhaha surrounding the evident connections between the Uribe government and the paramilitary organizations, however, make that claim seem like so much wishful thinking. Uribe's millions of supporters have long been aware of his ties to the paramilitaries but have chosen to ignore them, though they realize that they made a deal with the Devil. Without question, a majority of voting Colombians want to stay the course.

However tempting, given the heinous crimes possibly committed by the vigilantes, it would be wrong to view Colombians as callous and uncaring. Rather, they are extraordinarily war-weary. They continue to believe that Uribe's iron-fisted and uncompromising approach is the only way to end a conflict that, in different avatars, goes back more than six decades. Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear out their hopes. The leftist FARC guerrillas are alive and in no danger of defeat by the military. Paramilitary political violence will continue to benefit the landed classes and will not end the country's horrific civil war. The more pertinent question is: how much longer will the United States continue to play enabler to Colombia's paramilitary habits? Let's speak plain: Uribe is no to-the-core democrat; rather, he is a cynical pragmatist who says he is bending plow but somehow ends up with more swords. But that's good enough to feed the eagerness of the State Department to go along with this elaborate hoax that Colombia is a working democracy.

Who Is Uribe? Is He The God Father Of His Country?

Alvaro Uribe has been closely associated with paramilitarism since early in his political career, with his overt loathing of the leftist guerrillas forever linked by the condemnable murder of his father at the hands of the FARC in 1983. Uribe has never gone out of his way to deny his links to the various manifestations of this paramilitary phenomenon and has continued to derive political benefits from this association. It has remained at the core of his hard-line persona. Indeed, he was swept into office in 2002 on a wave of revulsion over the failed peace process unsuccessfully pursued by Conservative President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).

The Para's Ancestry

As governor of Antioquia between 1995 and 1997, Uribe was the bell cow in the legalization of paramilitary Convivir groups, the so-called 'Rural Vigilance Cooperatives,' that recalled the Colombia's government-backed death squads of the 1940s and 50s. These largely served to legalize the paramilitary militias that had emerged in the early 1980s. These latter units were enthusiastically supported by General Harold Bedoya, head of the Colombian Armed Forces from 1994-97. The army worked closely with the Convivirs in their anti-guerrilla deployments. Before being outlawed in 1999 due to their egregious excesses, the Convivirs helped displace over 200,000 campesinos, mostly from the Urabá region. In particular, the organizations that Uribe nurtured so lovingly, presided over one of Colombia's most gory massacres. In July 1997, two chartered flights of paramilitary gunmen flew from Urabá into the military-controlled airport at San José de Guaviare, Department of Meta, where Army soldiers helped transport their weapons and gear. After being reinforced by 180 local paramilitary brethren, the paras were waved through various military checkpoints as they made their way up the Guaiviare River to Mapiripán. Once there, they spent five days hunting specific 'subversives' that they had earlier been identified as guerrilla supporters. These individuals were taken to the local slaughterhouse and murdered. Their bodies were disemboweled (so as not to float) and dumped in the river.

Uribe's immediate predecessor in the presidential palace, Andrés Pastrana, had initiated one of the periodic attempts at peace making that went back to the presidency of Belsario Betancur in the early 1980s. To break the cycle of political violence, Pastrana sought to recognize the political legitimacy of the guerrilla groups, especially the FARC. He withdrew the army from an area of 162,000 hectares (effectively neutralizing it), and promised serious land, political, and socio-economic reforms. Not surprisingly, he could not deliver. Whether or not the FARC was actually serious about the peace process, there was no doubt about the crushing hostility of the army, many local elites, and their paramilitary minions. With the military withdrawn, the paras were given a free hand to increase their attacks on civilian 'guerrilla supporters,' while the FARC soon moved to use the area as a strategic zone for training, and as a place to hide their kidnap victims. These series of ruses eventually broke down by February 2002, just before Uribe's campaign swept on to a dramatic electoral victory. Despite the clear ill-will of much of the political, military, and economic establishment to Pastrana's quixotic peace process, the politically tone-deaf nature of the FARC received most of the blame, and set the stage for Uribe's spectacular rise to power. The FARC's inner feelings were clear: since the government couldn't guarantee their security after demobilization, laying down their arms would be equivalent to laying down their lives.

From the start, Uribe was the wildly preferred candidate of the AUC, the umbrella organization of paramilitary groups founded and led by Carlos Castaño, who by the way, enthusiastically took credit for the massacre at Mapiripán (among many others.) Castaño was the permanent paramilitary leader who never minced words about paramilitary goals or point of view. He believed that Uribe was the candidate who was most clearly emblematic of their 'philosophy.' Castaño claimed that two thirds of the 'guerrillas' were unarmed collaborators (and therefore legitimate military targets), a view that is almost universally held among Colombia's more well-heeled sectors, including the business community.

Uribe Offers No Quarter

Uribe was elected to end all attempts at negotiation. He has always surreptitiously believed that his mandate, arising from both of his presidential elections, was to eradicate the guerrillas. His overt and covert support comes from various interests: cattle ranchers, flower exporters (Colombia dominates the U.S. "Mother's Day" market), emerald miners, narcos, and liberal party bosses, who fear the guerrilla's inroads into legitimate politics. As well, Uribe is also quite popular with large portions of the urban populace (now a majority of the population) because he addresses their concerns about security. For decades, members of the elite have been kidnapped and sometimes murdered by the various guerrilla organizations, but in recent years, middle-class urbanites have also been increasingly targeted. And having lost his father to the FARC, no one had a better claim of their sympathy than Uribe.

Uribe and his team offered what to the nation was largely a military solution. Immediately after being elected in 2002 he declared a State of Emergency, and changed legal structures to allow for political negotiation with the paramilitary militias. He pushed his idea of 'democratic security,' which was little more than a subterfuge that was aimed at increasing cooperative ventures between military, police, and 'civilian' groups ­ a version of the Convivirs, updated and writ. The bellicose president set out to construct a first line of defense of so-called 'peasant soldiers' to protect their immediate regions, and encouraged local campesinos to spy on possible "agents of subversion." With more attention now being paid to quashing urban guerrilla networks, Uribe also had to force a good deal of existing guerrilla activity back into the countryside. In April 2004, he also launched Plan Patriota, the largest military operation in Modern Colombian history, particularly aimed at FARC installations in the country's southern departments. Finally, and most importantly politically, Uribe beefed up security on the nation's highways, making it possible for middle and upper class Colombians to head for their mountain houses, and to drive to the beach as well as to other outings.

None of this means, however, that Uribe is in fact winning the war against the FARC. Over the decades, the FARC has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive and assert itself, even if it has never truly threatened the existence of the Colombian state. Part of this success may arise from its supple organizational structure, formed in a series of semi-autonomous fronts or frentes. This durability has been evident ever since 1983 when paramilitary organizations began their brutal offensives against real, perceived, or potential guerrilla supporters. Though in 'strategic retreat' since the beginning of 2002, the FARC is very far from defeated. Ironically, government efforts may simply have weeded out the weaker members and frentes, and thus created an arguably stronger guerrilla force. This fact is not lost on segments of the Colombian military, and was driven home recently by Jennifer Schirmer, a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace, who has been studying the armed actors in Colombia's never-ending conflict. Many army officers there, she said, "have admitted that they know they can't defeat the FARC."

Demobilization a Sham

Uribe inherited 'Plan Colombia,' the multi-billion dollar U.S. aid package conceptualized by Pastrana during the final years of the Clinton administration that have been expanded and heavily militarized under President Bush. Though initially sold as an anti-narcotics strategy, much of the training and hardware it provides actually has gone largely to the Colombian army's struggle with the FARC, and its economic base which is found in the coca producing regions. While the army's close ties to the paramilitary units are universally recognized and even condemned, in practice this has somewhat declined (it is believed that more than half of the army's brigades still have paramilitary ties). Over the last two decades, most of the untoward aspects of Colombia's dirty war have been outsourced to the paras. Plan Colombia's most tangible political impact, therefore, has been to dramatically strengthen the groups that make up the AUC.

President Uribe's supreme nod to the paramilitary interests was the passage in 2005 of the euphemistically baptized 'Justice and Peace Law.' Purportedly meant to 'demobilize' the paramilitary units of the AUC, most international observers hold to the belief that the process has done little to disband the groups, but has provided them with impunity for their crimes against the country's brutally abused rural civilian population. Many paramilitary fighters now have taken off their blood splattered camouflage fatigues and replaced them with the antiseptic uniforms of 'private security' firms, but they still maintain the same contempt for the laws.

This point was made in December 2006, when representatives of Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres, (a national Colombian grassroots movement) spoke in Washington D.C. Referring to the situations in Cauca, Antioquia, and Chocó, they insisted that paramilitary structures continue to exit and exercise power. Now called 'civilian auxiliaries,' they may wear new uniforms, but they are still armed and unified as well as control territory, especially in Chocó, where they have set themselves up as the effective local authority. They continue to expropriate communally held land from centuries-old Afro-Colombian communities. Para land clearing and population displacement are also connected to the drug trade, the mass commercialization of African palm cultivation, cattle ranching, and to new and proposed mega-economic projects.

Finally, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous places on the planet for human rights activists, community leaders, and labor organizers. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the killing of Yolanda Izquierdo in the city of Montería, Department of Córdoba. Izquierdo, the leader of 'The People's Housing Organization,' was murdered on January 31, 2007, after receiving repeated death threats. Izquierdo had represented hundreds of survivors of paramilitary attacks led by Salvatore Mancuso. Human rights' bodies claim that the killing was meant to silence anyone having the temerity of speaking out against war crimes committed by the paramilitaries, as well as to the assassination of rights activist Freddy Abel Espitia in Córdoba on January 29. Both organizations insist that these killings raise, yet again, serious doubts about the authenticity entire demobilization route.

In fact, Colombia's specialists argue that Uribe's stratagem has utterly failed to dismantle the paramilitary units. The best evidence for this claim can be found in the numbers of union leaders and activists assassinated in Colombia over the last six years, more than 800 by the government's own count. Tellingly, the number of murders that have been solved can literally be counted on one hand. As reported by Sergio De Leon of the Associated Press, the number of murdered union members rose last year, despite a purported drop in the over all homicide rate, from 43 in 2005, to 58 in 2006.

The Unfolding Scandal

In late 2006, the deep-rooted relationship between Uribe and the paramilitary movement finally broke in the international news. What was meant to be a crowning moment in the 'demobilization' process- the testimony of Salvatore Mancuso (as required under the 'Justice and Peace' Law)-turned into a tellingly embarrassing ordeal for the Uribe administration as reams of evidence emerged that revealed close ties between paramilitary units and tainted legislators intimately associated with the president. Throughout December, investigators from the Supreme Court offered ample proof that 'Uribista' lawmakers helped paramilitary cadres to take over huge swaths of northern Colombia, and at the same time violently eliminate their 'leftist' enemies. Several congressmen were jailed, while investigations continued against other legislators, the most important being Senator Alvaro Araújo (whose sister, Maria Consuelo Araújo had served as Uribe's foreign minister). While Senator Araújo admitted to meeting with Rodrigo Tovar, a paramilitary leader and known drug dealer, Senator Miguel de la Espriella explained how he and other elected officials met with paramilitary groups in 2001.

On December 19, 2006 Salvatore Mancuso, the nation's highest profile paramilitary commander (since the murder of Carlos Castaño), sat before government officials in a closed proceeding to begin the demobilization process by outlining his crimes, ranging from ordering individual assassinations to the mass killing of entire communities. Over the course of several weeks, he admitted to ordering the murder of more than 300 people, though human rights advocates believe the actual number is much higher. These killings, he pointed to, were made possible by intelligence passed on by members of the military. He also alleged that his militia, and others, ordering citizens into voting for President Uribe in the 2002 election.

As the scandal rolled into February and March, foreign minister Araújo was ultimately forced to resign, while weeks later her father, Alvaro Araújo Noguera, was arrested for the kidnapping of a political rival. Then Jorge Noguera, the former head of the all-power DAS (Colombia's omnibus administrative agency, covering internal and external security, customs, and even judicial matters), was charged with murder arising from links to the paramilitaries. These ties were outlined by Rafael García, one of Noguera's chief subordinates, also under arrest. García laid out how his boss consistently shared classified information with paramilitary groups, and how they worked together to rig elections in favor of Uribe's supporters in congress. In late March, news broke of payments made by senior executives of Chiquita Brands International to paramilitary groups who had fielded death squads. Finally, in April, opposition Senator Gustavo Petro came out with the explosive allegation that paramilitary death squads had used President Uribe's own ranch as a staging area for their activities in the late 1980s, when Uribe was a Senator.

This is the man and cause who Bush and Uribe's supporters in the Senate hope to dispatch hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds to, and who his detractors, hope to reveal as a fraud and a mountebank when it comes to upholding democratic values.

Dr. W. John Green is a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and specializes in Andean affairs, particularly regarding Colombia. Dr. Green, formerly a biweekly columnist for Colombia Week, is a historian of modern Latin America and has specialized in twentieth-century socio-political popular mobilizations, mechanisms and practices of local and national politics, labor and insurgent movements, as well as the obstacles and repression they face. Dr. Green has focused in particular on questions of social justice, democracy problems of governance, grass-roots politics and popular participation in political institutions, human rights, the impact of economic development, globalization, media coverage of the region, and in finding ways to expand U.S. public interest regarding these issues. He is the author of Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia (Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 2003), a study that explores the dynamics of popular political mobilization, agency, and hegemony in Colombia from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Communal Councils of 23 de enero

Two Sundays ago, we visited the very, very large barrio '23 de enero' -- an ultrachavista area that I've mentioned earlier -- at the invitation of the newly elected members of the Communal Council. A small swearing-in ceremony was being held in the Plaza Sergio Rodriguez, which is named after a community organizer killed in 1993 by the police. In fact, the 'plaza' might more aptly be described as a patio and a walkway which follows the length of a long way covered with paintings of the martyrs and heroes of the barrio. Nonetheless, the overall effect of so many faces smiling out at you from concrete and paint is both chilling and inspiring. It was fitting, then, that the swearing in of this Communal Council was to take place in the presence of so many who died in the process of fighting for a better life for 23 de enero and Venezuela as a whole.

It was a rather simple affair, a speach by one of the main organizers about the responsibility to the pueblo, the necessity of respect before all else, denunciations of unilateralism and opportunism... Then everyone was to raise their right hand and swear to the constitution (another interesting thing...the constitution ot 1999, the 'Constitución de la Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela' can be purchased on many many street corners throughout the capital. There is an entire sub-insdustry of buhneros -- informal street vendors -- who sell nothing but constitutions and laws. People can be seen reading them on the metro or on the bus. Coming from the perspective of a Teaching Assistant in the US, this of course has been rather shocking for me to se!). And finally a toast of generic coca-cola and the opportunity for all present to give a short speach. There were few observers other than those being sworn in, most of whom were women anywhere from ages 30-60 (I'd say...though I tend to be bad with guessing age, and didn't think asking folks' age would win me any friends).

After the ceremony, we milled about and talked with the newly elected members of the councils. One woman's (for the sake of anonymity, we'll call her Julia) perspective was telling. She emphasized repeatedly that they have much much work ahead of them. The plan is for the Communal Councils to take over legislative and a good portion of executive power in the near future. Venezuela already has a quite healthy recall referrendum system in place, with tens of mayors and governors facing new elections in a few months, and the general consensus -- that ALL politicians are scum -- can, I think, produce EITHER the sort of cynicism it has traditionally (and in places like the US) OR encourage the population to organize autonomously (like these folks, now officially recognized as Communal Council members, have been doing for ages and ages).

Julia felt that the councils were necessary for precisely this second possibility. In her opinion, even the MVR (Movimiento de la Quinta Republica -- or 5th Republic Movement, Chávez' party) was full of corrupt, self-serving-all-but-escualidos ('escualidos' being the common way to refer to the opposition...basically good for nothings, folks with money who make absolutely no contribution to society). Only a direct democratic system, bypassing all the corruption and clientelism of Venezuela's institutional history, can bring about actual, substantive, positive change for the vast majority of the country's population.


She seemed to have rather little faith in the ability of the masses (or 'people' or 'multitude' -- whichever you prefer) to actually and really really really do it. Julia almost disdainfully remarked 'They shout Chávez! Chávez! Chávez!' and 'Patria, Socialismo, o Muerte!' but they have no idea what any of it means. They want to eat, they want to live, but they aren't thinking through what needs to be done, the sacrifices and the ugliness, to bring about change. She paused at one point and spoke about the 'democratic' and 'peaceful' character of the revolution. 'As for me, I've always been one for revolution,' and as she said the following, she touched each of our arms, both to pull us in and to emphasize how serious she was: 'and revolutions have to be bloody, right? right? right?'

It strikes me that this sort of realism is necessary, ugly as it might be to some. To think that one day, magically, the rich of Venezuela will either a.) give up their social position, which many of their families have enjoyed since the time of independence; or b.) allow themselves to be legislated out of their high caste status -- is ridiculous at best.

The two points actually fit together in a rather important way. Without popular education, without a transformation in the values, culture, and operating procedures of venezuelan society, this experiment in direct democracy will end as just that, an experiment that ends up as 'democratic' as California's ballot measure system. At the same time, without proper ideological training, without the ability to see through ruling class ideology -- and that FAR from comes naturally -- the discipline necessary for making the revolutionary transition to 21st century socialism will ever be lacking. These are the sorts of things that cannot come as commandments from the leadership, nor can they come preformed or ready made. Rather, the discipline and the adaptability of the Bolivarian Revolution can only come from the base, from the potential of bodies like the Communal Councils. The people who make them up, like our friend Julia, are those who have been struggling for revolution for years, often long before the emergence of Chávez and Chavismo on the national stage in 1992. These will also be the folks who keep the revolution radical, who push it past the timidity of the middle classes and the manipulations of escualidos.

This was also the first weekend of inscription into the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and the alcaldía mayor de Caracas, Juan Barretto, was throwing a huge party a few blocks away to celebrate the fact that 23 de enero, along with nearby Catia, had the highest inscription rates among all the sign-up centers. After Julia's commentary on the political consciousness of the many, the event had a bit of a 'Bread and Circuses' feel to it. Cheap beer, grilled meat, live music, and lots and lots of socialist talk...Julia had me prepped to be cynical, and when the politicos got up to speak in between bands, I expected the crowds to disperse, for the speeches to be ignored -- the sort of thing that happens even among the hard left in the US at an anti-war rally thrown together by speech-happy Leninists. Not so. Certainly there was the sort of sound-bite politics of chaning and cheering when one's locality was mentioned, when Chávez was named, or when the opposition got taunted
(which is always really, really fun, especially around the RCTV controversy. The opposition is running commercials and overly produced -- and frustratingly catchy, i might add -- ditties about how RCTV is the voice of the people, the truth and the light and the most important thing in the world (more on that later). Chavista outlets, on the other had, tend to walk the RCTVas! (RCTV get out of here) sort of line, with commercials of kids and workers and all sorts of folks saying something along the line of 'oooooohhhh, buh-bye, so sorry, chao!' -- I dunno...guess you'd have to be here to appreciate it. What i love about it is that the position seems to come less from some nauseating moral high ground, but rather from a position of power and a sarcastic response to the opposition's cynical attempt to wrap itself in the flag and constitution...)
...but i could encounter all the things one could normally expect at a political event. But there was also a sincere and fairly large component of the crowd listening attentively to the speeches, interested in the numbers coming back from inscription centers, and seemingly excited by the deepening of the revoultion.

We left shortly after the appearence of Juan Barretto (who, magically, arrived with reinforcements of the dwindling cheap beer supply) as it was getting late and we all had to work the following morning. As we walked to the metro, the sounds of the party dwindled and the ambient noise of Caracas once again took control. An hour later, I was back in my friends' apartment, deep in enemy territory, where the police patrol with their lights flashing to make the inhabitants of Chacao feel 'safe' and where the flags still only have 7 stars.

Friday, May 4, 2007

more pictures...

...since apartment searching has officially kicked my ass for the day, I thought I'd take a moment to post some more pictures from the first weeks here...

This is from (if I recall correctly) Barrio Coche, a heavily Chavista sector of Caracas. The banner, atop an apartment building, reads: "On the Way to Bolivarian Socialism!"

This is just one (poor) example of the way the revolution is manifesting aesthetically on the walls of the city. It really is incredible, especially in the barrios, where Chavez's power is strongest, nearly every inch of wall space is covered with slogans, denunciations, and exhortations to build twentieth century socialism.

Finally, the newish octogonal building at the far left of the photo (taken from a moving car, sorry) is a 'Barrio Adentro' clinic (and notice the way the houses of the barrio clamor up and over the hill in the background). These are the government projects which bring free health care to Venezuela's poorest people. The care they offer is free, and surprisingly extensive. Folks get treated for everything from colds and broken limbs to long term, intensive care illnesses such as diabetes and various cancers. I even know a few foreigners -- fellow teachers at the institute -- who have used its services. The vast majority of these clinics are staffed by Cuban doctors (pardon the sarcasm, but this is of course yet another example of Cuba and Chavez's anti-human despotism), while the Venezuelan government builds its endogenous medical population.