Friday, June 8, 2007
'The' student movement, RCTV, and class power
...the view from in front of the National Assembly 7 June, 2007...
Recent mobilizations by the students of Venezuela’s universities have prompted some commentators to label them a ‘new and powerful actor in the political life of the country,’ by which they of course mean a ‘new and powerful anti-Chavista force.’ Such pronouncements, while good for opinion pages and rhetorical gymnastics, fail to adequately grasp the nature, composition and direction of student movements (the multiplicity of movements often being lost on commentators as well) today in Venezuela. Even beyond the inevitable differences of opinion and analysis among fellow travelers of a particular movement, such pronouncements fail to acknowledge the emergence of the real ‘new’ student movement – the mobilizations in support of the government and the Bolivarian Revolution.
A bit of background is in order. Since the end of Radio Caracas Televisión’s (RCTV) concession on the 27th of last month, there have been near daily protests and marches in support of ‘freedom of expression’ on the streets of Caracas and throughout the country. The marches have for the most part been peaceful, though not without incident and have in the majority been organized by university students.
The students repeatedly claim that they are not political nor ‘golpistas’ and repeatedly call for ‘debate’ over ‘freedom of expression in Venezuela.’ The depth of their desire for debate was exemplified yesterday (7 June) when opposition students walked out of a debate between themselves and pro-Bolivarian student groups held at a normal session of the Asemblea National (AN). The opposition factions’ claims to an ostensible desire for open debate, as with their accusations that the entire debate was stacked against them by AN chairperson Cilia Flores only adds to the absurdity and contradiction of their various and sundry positions, considering the entire event came about all but at the behest of the student opposition.
For the sake of brevity, I will divide these contradictory positions into five general orienting myths of the opposition students:
Myth #1 “No somos golpistas, somos estudiantes”
While generalizing that the entirety of the opposition student protestors are coupmongerers is a bit of a stretch (at present, anyway), the assertion on their part that they are ‘not political’ is a stretch of a far greater magnitude in the opposite direction. They have attempted to march on the AN or Miraflores on more than one occasion, repeatedly make pronouncements concerning the status of the country and the necessity of a change of government, and openly associate their aims with those of the chief opposition parties – though they go to great lengths to emphasize their autonomy from the likes of Primeria Jusicia, Acción Democratica, Copei, and the like.
At its most elementary, i.e., the way any introductory course to political science would put it, is that their actions are political in that their chief aim is to bring about a change in governmental policy. To claim that such a position is not in fact ‘political’ only makes sense in the moral economy of neoliberalism which still holds sway over activists of the left and right alike. Within this framework, anything associated with the government or state is bad, and anything with the nebulous realm of ‘civil society’ is in the right.
More important than this rather feeble moral high ground is the fact that such positioning ostensibly keeps them out of the reach of responsibility for their actions AND attempts to position them outside the morally bankrupt traditional political class. In other words, through claiming autonomy from any ostensibly ‘political’ ends, they are attempting to mitigate the public (and more importantly, that of the government) perception of their role in the on-going attempts to destabilize the Bolivarian process on the part of the opposition and their friends abroad. While this might work for Fox news, CNN, and Condi Rice, it doesn’t fly here.
[Condi, by the by, just got body-slammed by the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolás Maduro at the annual meeting of the Organization of American States. Condi called for the formation of an OEA panel to investigate the status of ‘freedom of expression and other basic human rights in Venezuela.’ To this proposal, Maduro said that if the US is so concerned about human rights, perhaps it should spend more time getting out of Iraq, or deal with the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay like human beings, or stop protecting international terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles. To top things off, yesterday (June 7) the OEA voted to let Venezuela keep its chair on the human rights commision. AND Condi’s motion failed. Did that get covered in the US?]
The other tack, distancing themselves from politicians, is an attempt not to be covered by their stink. Most Venezuelans tend to think politicians are all self-interested scum (hence the popularity of Chávez and other outsiders). By presenting themselves as the untainted young faces of Venezuela, the students are attempting to, as has been the case with most opposition strategy, out Chávez Chávez.
The claims of autonomy and apolitical ends on the part of the students can in part be debunked anecdotally from an event last Friday. The students wanted to march on the AN, but their permit was denied by the mayor of that part of Caracas, Freddy Bernal (more on this in Myth #3). When, in the course of the march, they were turned away from the route to the AN for the final time, a group of parliamentarians met with them in a cathedral. The parliamentarians were of the party PODEMOS, once solidly in the Chavista bloc but now moving almost inevitably into the opposition camp, with their secretary general Ismael García’s criticism of the PSUV. García, when he accepted the demands of the students last Friday, said that his job as a politician is to serve as the voice of the people, even when he ‘doesn’t agree with them.’ Or this is at least what he said when he presented the demands to the AN on Monday – an event which quite possibly enabled the debate which the opposition students walked out of today.
The point of this is that the opposition students and PODEMOS, or at least García, are attempting to play political theater to make up for the lack of support. The students are walking a dangerous line at the forefront of opposition plans to produce a crisis in Venezuela that seeks a violent confrontation between ‘the people’ and ‘the government,’ and the eventual downfall of the Bolivarian revolution. García for his part is trying to save his political life by playing centrist man of the people and getting close (but not too close) to the ‘powerful new actor in Venezuelan political life’ as he watches his party base defect to the PSUV (inscription in which has now passed the 5.3 million mark. PODEMOS at present allegedly retains only 30% of its support base compared to its pre-2006 election rosters).
Myth #2: This is about freedom of expression
The opposition and their student representatives have mastered the old law of politicin’ that says ‘Never answer the question you were asked. Answer the question you wish you were asked.’ In other words, they are, with the dutiful help of governments and news agencies around the world, framing the issue in the Manichean terms of good civil liberties against a bad authoritarian government. Any attempts by Chavistas, anticapitalists, or critical minds in general to point out that the concentration of media power in the hands of one mega corporation (Grupo 1BC, and their president Marcel Granier) does not constitute ‘freedom of speech’ is dismissed as so much ‘communist rambling.’
Cloaking the issue in terms of freedom of expression makes it more palatable to the domestic and global market. In the process of doing so, it also seeks to naturalize the idea that the media somehow belongs to mega broadcasting conglomerates. It also sidesteps the issue of RCTV’s behavior (of which I’ve written on in past posts, so I’ll not go into this in depth at present).
More fundamentally and to the point, however, the opposition choice of ‘freedom of expression’ illuminates the wide division between their worldview and that of the Bolivarian revolution. According to the world the Bolivarians are trying to construct, the end of RCTV’s concession constitutes – in the words of one slogan – an ‘expression of freedom.’ That is to say, rather than the flimsy liberal value of being able to say ‘no’ when the government, or anyone else, says ‘yes,’ the Bolivarian process is constructing a more substantive idea of freedom, one more aligned with the development of human potential than with the choice of which commodity to buy or become.
The problem in terms of the really-existing class conflict playing out today relates to the question of who is willing to, or even of who can, understand each respective discourse. In terms of political efficacy, which strategy best serves the revolution, and which best serves the opposition? Is it more central for the revolution to temper its rhetoric to the (neo)liberal positions of the opposition, or to push forward, heightening the contradictions along the way and hence making the antagonisms of future conflicts more clear? In other words (and this is a debate I continue to have with a colleague of mine) is it even possible for the Bolivarians to ‘win the hearts and minds’ (or at least not create steadfast enemies) of those segemets of the middle classes that are at present relatively silent? Or, is it possible for the government to BOTH push forward the revolution AND make the oppositions students’ political theater less effective?
Either way, we’ve come a long way from a civil liberties issue for the ostensibly apolitical opposition student movement.
(those of you who will get it, already did.)
Myth #3: There is no freedom of expression in Venezuela
(or, more sympathetically, Freedom of expression is under attack in Venezuela today)
The request on the part of the opposition students to march to the AN last Friday was denied on grounds that another group had already requested to converge at that same location at the same time. Other than this, the students have been able to march without incident, and with the sanction and instruction of their administrators, for the last week and a half straight. (When they throw rocks at the police, they get tear-gassed. Under former regimes, they’d have faced a hell of a lot more than that. That was one of Chávez’s first public orders – seeing as how his rise to power has largely been facilitated by the aftermath of the 1989 Caracazo – that the police and military no longer have carte blanche when dealing with protestors and the like. This, of course, doesn’t stop the international press and Globovision from airing all the ‘See! See! Chávez is a bloody dictator! Footage they’ve been saving up for quite some time now. The fact that there are more police who have been hospitalized than students ought to point to the restraint being shown in these situations.)
The point is, this claim is practically not worth debunking, given the fact that the opposition has been given more leeway and more opportunity to say what they like in this country – even after they sponsored a coup – than anywhere else in the world. Globovision remains on the air, the major newspapers continue to publish anti-Chavez editorials and many have an in-house policy to spin everything against the government. Most importantly for their point, the students are given permits to march, to disrupt the flow of this impossibly crowded city AND are given disproportionate coverage by the media. They were even given the floor of the AN today, which they temper-tantrumed out of in hopes of further augmenting their position as the righteous victims of an unjust regime.
In short, the very utterance of the claim, especially in the venues in which they have been uttered, is its own debunking.
Myth #4: The student protestors represent the majority of Venezuelans
The student protestors, fitting into the opposition’s dreams of dividing the Chávez government from its base, supposedly represent the majority of Venezuela in that RCTV was the most popular stations in the country. It was the most consistently national channel and aired the most watched programming across the nation. Hence, or so the logic goes, the students are the representatives of the majority of Venezuelans.
Perhaps the students have as much love for telenovelas as the population at large, but to call them representative of the population is a sort of logic that can only make sense in the Fourth Republic. The students taking to the streets to support RCTV are by and large white and upper-middle and upper class. They represent a sort of mythological cosmopolitanism that a minority of Venezuelans have tried to project onto themselves for quite some time that says 'we are Venezuela' by reducing all who don't look like them or enjoy the same socioeconomic status to obscurity, poverty, and silence. In such a light, their claim to represent the country's majority is not just unfounded, it is insulting.
Myth #5: The student protestors represent the future of Venezuela
A decided no. To be explained in the following section.
Universities: (still) Protecting class power
On the 24th of last month (May) President Chávez announced that the country will phase out the Prueba de Aptitud Académica by 2008, while simultaneously announcing plans for 28 new specialization schools (for everything from health science to fiscal studies) as well as 13 new centers of higher education to be created outside of the capital and the nation’s largest cities. The goal of these measures, he argued, is to put an end to “old methods which have previously been the source of corruption and exclusion.”
Put into context and taken together, these three acts point not only toward the deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution, but also to the historical role of Universities in the reproduction of class (and, pace Richard Gott in my previous post, racial) power in Venezuela.
(dare I suggest elsewhere?).
Historically, students have had to come to the city from the country in order to pursue higher learning, the cost of which – both directly in terms of living and classes and indirectly in terms of the lack of their help back home – often served as a barrier to their even thinking of attending college. Furthermore, the entry exams put students from richer families, who could afford better private schooling and conditions more conducive to learning.
(gee, maybe this is sounding familiar.)
In fact, the students of Venezuela’s major universities should not and cannot be considered a ‘new’ political force. They are only representing the interests of their class positions, a position with deep historical roots. Their organization and taking to the streets as footsoldiers only gives a new name to a demographic already well within the ranks of the opposition. Thus, they should not be considered the future of Venezuela, but rather its past.
“We are not socialists, we are social beings. We are not neoliberals, we are free. We are not the opposition, we have a proposition. We do not believe in authoritarianism nor in the hegemony of minorities nor majorities. We dream with a country where we can be heard without being the same.”
--Douglas Barrios, speaking for the opposition students at the AN on 7 June, 2007
Yesterday´s events at the AN illuminate the depth of the democratic nature of the opposition, and of the student opposition in particular. After repeatedly calling for a debate over freedom of expression, after repeatedly attempting to be heard at the AN and claiming that their rights are being trampled on by an authoritarian and centrist state, they refused to engage. After one speaker, from which the above quote is extracted, the opposition walked out and were escorted under heavily armed guard away from the AN. In a press conference later in the day, Stalin González – a student leader from the Universidad Central de Venezuela – reiterated the lie that the RCTVista students had never called for a debate. “At no moment have we called for a debate,” he said, “we brought a document [and asked to read it to the AN].”
For a group that has largely organized itself around the cause of pluralism and freedom of expression, this unilateral act of political theater exposes the flimsiness of their democratic credentials (photos in today´s Últimas Noticias depict the opposition students being whisked away to safety while holding signs reading ´freedom of expression,´ ´Pluralism,´ ´to express yourself is freedom,´ and ´Peace´.) They came to the AN, just as they have marched in the streets, neither to communicate nor to exchange ideas, but rather to make demands, to speak and be listened to, and to take advantage of a ready-made media spectacle. While this might seem like the rational comportment of any social movement in the history of struggles for political change – in whichever direction it might be oriented towards – the disingenuousness of the opposition students has only been emphasized at every juncture.
At that same press conference, González claimed that any debate over their demands ought to take place in the streets, student assemblies, and barrios of the country. The question, the multi-billion dollar question, is whether or not the spectacle being created by the students and the opposition press is going to work. Calling for debate in the streets and universities is a gesture towards the ´popularization´ of their cause (which, they continually assert, is not political, or at least is separate from opposition political parties) and again, a way of avoiding association with the undesirables housed in the AN. The strategy, according to a colleague, is to present themselves as clean-cut victims of an overbearing government. They know they cannot win over Chavistas or Bolivarianas. This is why their strategy vis-à-vis supporters of the government has been to irritate them into hasty reactions. By making the Chavistas behave poorly, the opposition and opposition students hope to add even more evidence to their claims of victimhood.
[an interesting example of this approach occurred yesterday as the opposition students arrived to the AN dressed in red shirts, much to the consternation of the assembled socialist student groups at the entrance. Once in the AN, the opposition students shed the Chavista red for an ostensibly neutral white. The Chavistas were furious at the gall of their opponents. The symbolic message was clear: now is the time to shed the complacent façade and join the struggle against the government.]
Thus, their cause is not to debate ideas (despite what they may have claimed in the past, when it was more convenient) but rather to activate those segments of the middle classes who are at present inert. Mid level bureaucrats, small business owners and the like who are ´going along with´ or (as the opposition hopes) simply tolerating the Bolivarian process will take to the streets with them in a semi-mass-based counterrevolutionary movement.
But will it work?
The organization of the opposition students has been surprising, and their media savvy has no doubt been aided by this particular cause. As many folks wiser than myself have noted in the past, the mere presentation of counterfactuals with a deeper grasp on reality does not guarantee a political victory.
The hope, however, of another opposition defeat is not unfounded.
The opposition and opposition media´s description of “THE student movement” as a new political force in Venezuela, on the other hand, is.
In a full page denunciation published in today´s (8 June) Últimas Noticias, a group of professors and students from UCV pointed out that, despite the opposition and media´s claims to the contrary, what we are seeing in the streets of Venezuela is decidedly NOT the emergence of a new, cohesive and all encompassing anti-Bolivarian student bloc. Despite the fact that adminstrators and not a few professors of the nation´s universities have sanctioned the student marches, there is a large section of the student body which supports the revolutionary process, the end of RCTV´s concession, and the government´s since. In their own words:
“We fully recognize that university authorities, like all citizens of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, have the right to express themselves, in voices or in writing or through whatever legal medium under the authorization of the constitution and laws of the Republic they so choose. (However, this does not include the presentation of their) political positions as representative of all members of the university community…
“As opposed to the university authorities and those who share their position, we students share the thesis that until this moment there has not been any real freedom of expression, communication, or information in Venezuela, because the media has been under the control of a small section of society. (Rather,) we think that there should be an opening of a new stage of true media and information democratization that coincides with the notion of democracy that covers all aspects of our constitution.”
This of course does not address the issue of whether or not the spectacle being produced by the opposition and the student opposition will attain its goals. What it does point to, however, is the continuing transforming constellation of forces in Venezuela. The students who took to the streets around the AN yesterday in support of the Bolivarian process are those who have historically been without a voice. They are the ones who 15 years ago would not be students, would not have the opportunity to become students. Hence, they are the truly new force in Venezuelan politics, beneficiaries of one aspect of the 'new geometry of power' developing at present. Their loyalty to Chávez is outstripped only by their distaste for the privileged students claiming to represent the whole of Venezuelan youth.
The likelihood of the opposition students chalking up a win for the larger opposition in terms of a return to the airwaves of RCTV is unlikely. And, as I have argued before, this isn't the point. Their aim, rather, is to produce a situation in which their version of 'the truth' which can agitate their latent fellow travellers into action.
Whether or not they can mobilize this population, and whether or not that will be enough to counter the momentum of the Bolivarian revolution and the passion of its newest cadres, remains to be seen.