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.

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