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 digress...one 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.