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.


Cristina said...

When I saw the documentary "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" one of the things that impressed me the most was that Chavez not only wanted people to read the Constitution, he wanted them to form study groups to talk about it. I thought that was amazing for a number of reasons. First, as you point out, it's novel enough to think about people even reading the Constitution. I often notice that people in the U.S. often confuse the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to begin with, never mind it's safe to say that any given adult here has not read the Constitution lately.

But I was even more impressed that Chavez wanted people to form groups to study the Constitution and talk about it on their own. I think that's taking an important step toward changing the culture itself. Through discussion people not only understand it, but make it part of their thinking and take ownership of it. If people discuss the Constitution they're not fetishizing it, which can make them more resistant to politicians who want to use it not as a framework for democracy but will invoke it to reinforce elite power and silence dissent. I think about Chavez saying that whenever the media here depicts him as a despot who want to impose censorship and quash the opposition. Despots are afraid to let people think and talk for themselves.

Though I must say in the film also depicted Chavez as a charasmatic and paternalistic figure, which made me a wee bit nervous since I wondered if people would then rely on him too much. What are your thoughts on that?

amanda said...

Terrific update Don! Please keep them coming. Your observations are keen and your photos beautiful. It's fascinating to read about revolution as a here-and-now process, unthinkable for me entrenched in the empire.

"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."-- well said. And perhaps that same contingency may help to mitigate the potential trappings of a beloved, paternalistic leader figure Cris mentions.

Samuel said...

Ahhhhhh, Donny me boy, wonderful to hear such detailed descriptions and the photos are getting better and better...

This idea of the Constitution as reading material, it's interesting... It makes me think of Miles Horton and his Highlander school here in the USofA. That was the framework he proposed for literacy training and not only did it begin to work (through employing locals to teach locals, etc.) it worked so well that the entire operation was dubbed a Communist institution and one to be snuffed out...and, it was. The very idea of the working class actually understanding their rights, as guaranteed them, is so terrifying to the elite it's almost humorous...


--d said...

Chavez is certainly a charismatic figure, i don't mean to diminish the weight he carries. The amount of influence he carries and the extent to which he is able to overdetermine specific groups' actions vis-a-vis constitutional reform, the organization of the PSUV, etc largely depends on the 'type' of Chavista you are. there are a few rough lines one might be able to draw (the list is by no means exclusive) -- there are the folks like Julia, who've been struggling forever, and aren't so egotisitical as to refuse the aid of a comrade -- even if they happen to be in a position of state power. However, at the same time, their position is more qualified, less a position of blind faith, than some sectors. There are of course also the middle classish sectors, who hope Chavez will stop somewhere around Scandinavian social democracy, and who have obviously had their heads in the sand, but hey, at least they chose the right side, which they normally don't, enit? And then there are the so-called popular sectors, those who attended the big bash Barretto threw. Seems like most 'this is yet another iteration of populism' sort of readings would caution that the masses are fickle and yadda yadda. But of course, we shouldn't underestimate the depth of their support for the revolutionary process, and perhaps more importantly, their hatred for the old regime (April 2002, thank you very much).

This is the sector we're talking about, enit? This is where all the marbles rest. The cynical reading, shared by both the left and right opposition, is that the reading circles are less for reading and more for ideological indoctrinationas.
the (perhaps paradoxical) common denominator then, of both the 'ultra leftist opposition' and the escaulidos, is a deeply absurd position vis-a-vis democracy (really, can there be any other?)
On the one had, the starting point is the idea that 'democracy' is nothing other than legitimated manipulation.
on the other, the criticism all but says 'but the deal was, it was popularly legitimated so that WE could get OUR goodies (aristocratic privilege or middle class self delusion, depending on whether we're talking right or left opp), NOT for you to feed poor people.

anectdote: i was watching ViVe the other night (which is a government sponsored TV station. fairly 'objective' -- whatever that means -- by venezuelan standards, although they rarely give air to the 'opposition' position, though i really see nothing wrong with that, which is the topic of another post entirely) and they were interviewing folks as they signed up to join the PSUV. EVERYONE said they wanted to be a part of the president's vision, that they wanted to do what they could to help Chavez. BUT, the vast majority of folks also said they thought this was the best way possible or available for them to change the country. So there is a bit of a differentiation going on -- slight, and tentative, but there nonetheless -- between Chavez and Change. That is to say, for many speakers, the two terms had yet to become equal or instrumental, but were rather seen as allies. Why is this important? Because as long as that gap continues to exist, the space between the revolutionary drive and its percieved head, vanguard, or institutional(ized) force, there remains the potential and power to see this thing through.

One final note--i'm prepping some, well, notes to myself that i should have ready to post by the weekend, that in part address the role of the constitution, and of further constitutional reforms, in the deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution. To put it shortly, one of the major pushes fomenting at present is a series of constitutional reforms which will, among other things, initiate a series of social property rights to counter the still private-centric economic model here...point being that the gov't isn't trying to 'outlaw' private property, just emphasize and encourage different forms of 'managing things' that are more community centered, focusing, if you will, on the species-being rather than on humans as floating/colliding exchange values
(still trying to track down all that is proposed, i'll get them out eventually)

of course, the crazy thing is that the 1999 constitution already asserts as social rights, guaranteed by the state and the homeland, a roof, food, education, and security -- giving the missiones (Barrio Adentro, Negro Hipolita, Che Guevara [formerly Vuelan caras], and etc) a Constitutional stamp of approval. also in the constitution are the building blocks for the transfer of power to the communal councils (this has already been set in place by presidential decree, one of the first things Chavez did when he recieved enabling powers earlier this year) that folks want to put into the constitution. the logic then being that if the bad guys come back, they have to hold a constitutional assembly to roll back the advances made since 1999, or rule via tanks, and most likely both.