Friday, September 28, 2007

Accion Democratica and 'the good old days'

Caracas in general is covered in some rather incredible political graffiti from all sides of the political spectrum. When I have access to a faster internet connection, I’ll post a collection of the photos I’ve taken throughout my time here.
(the painted text reads, more or less, 'away with the reform' -- referencing the recent flotilla of 33 reforms to the 1999 constitution announced by president Chávez.)(The stencils read: 'The time has come' and the images on the wheat-pasted flyers are of Romúlo Betancourt)
As of late, however, ‘AD’ agitprop has been fairly ubiquitous. ‘AD’ of course refers to Acción Democrática, one of the two parties which made up the ‘Puntofijismo’ system of Venezuela’s 30 some year long ‘exceptional’ democracy. Within social science and ‘latin americanist’ area-studies circles in the US, Venezuela was until slightly before the 1997 elections considered to be the only stable democracy in a troubled region. Colombia and Peru had their civil wars, southern-cone states like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile had their notorious dictatorships. Bolivia and Ecuador, both politically unstable, were poster children for the extreme poverty of the region.

Venezuela was seen as ‘special’ because since the fall of the Marcos Peréz Jimenéz on January 23, 1958, there had been BOTH relatively uninterrupted economic growth AND ‘smooth’ democratic transitions between presidents of different political parties. The details of this era of ‘exceptional’ democracy in Venezuela, however, make it look more like an oligarchic dictatorship which engaged in democratic theater than the ‘democracy with adjectives’ of political scientists in the north.

(The former view has prevailed among most in Venezuela since the 1990s, whereas the notion of ‘democracy with adjectives’ – ‘pacted,’ ‘partial,’ ‘incomplete,’ ‘formal,’ and so forth – continues to spawn cottage industries among political scientists in US academia.)

The upsurge of AD graffiti has been occasioned by the party’s 66th anniversary, but it also dovetails with a few other undercurrents circulating today throughout Venezuelan society. The first has to do with the euphoria of the current oil boom, which has some rich Venezuelans longing for the AD presidency of Carlos Andrés Peréz (his first time in Miraflores), when many though one had to ‘try NOT to make money’ here. The difference between this oil boom and that of the 1970s is that this time money is being invested in social programs and infrastructural development rather than financing the artificial boom of a cultural and economic elite.

The second has to do with the (opposition) perception that the current polarization of Venezuelan society requires the ‘return of sanity’ and the mediation of a wise leader. Such a position is of course like the image of two people fighting in the street, all the while shouting one at the other ‘you must see reason and stop fighting!’ while doing nothing themselves to cease hostilities. Such is, of course, the necessary line to take according to the protocol of a respectable representative liberal democracy – use the façade of political cordiality to obscure the raw brutality of class domination. Bolivarians are on the other hand on the whole concerned either with consolidating their power (especially so for the moderate sectors of the movement) or pressing the potentials of 21st century Socialism evermore deeper and more radical. The opposition position of course idealizes its own past, however, in that it fails to recognize the key role the military has always played in the rise to political and economic power of the national bourgeoisie. Today, the military is all but completely aligned with the Bolivarian revolution.

Such can explain the choice of Romúlo Betancourt in the commemorative graffiti accompanied by the exhortation “Countrymen: The Time has come.” This choice is perhaps also forced upon them in that Andrés Peréz is now more associated with his second presidency [1989-1993]. During this second time in office he imposed a harsh neoliberal adjustment package, sent the military into the streets to bloodily repress the popular uprising in response to it (the infamous ‘Caracazo’ of February 1989), and was ultimately impeached for corruption in 1993. He left in his aftermath a completely decimated political scene and would be the last AD politician to be elected president. Since an association of AD’s with the opulence of an oil boom is all but out of the picture, the party hopes to align itself with the ostensible return of stability and democratic calm to the country.) However, a look back at AD’s actual history, as well as that of the Puntofijismo system it inaugurated, might make them reticent to encourage such associations.

The Strange ‘Democratic’ Prehistory of ‘Puntofijismo’

In 1935, Juan Vicente Gomez, president of Venezuela since 1908, died in his sleep of natural causes. His rule saw the beginning and intensification of Venezuela’s shift from an agro-export based economy (largely coffee and sugar) to a petrol-producing state. It also brought about the end of nearly a century of civil war and local caudillo politics through the rationalization and centralization of rule in Venezuela and, perhaps paradoxically, the identification of political power with the figure of the president. Gomez accomplished all of this through a rather iron-fisted approach to domestic politics, banning political parties, assassinating or exiling opponents, and carefully controlling access to oil concessions and other key aspects of the developing economy.

Another decade of rule by the military followed his death until a group of development-minded young officers led by Marcos Peréz Jiménez overthrew his second successor, Isaías Medina Angarita. The junta then installed Romúlo Betancourt (who founded Acción Democratica in 1941 along with other members of the so-called ‘Generation of 28’) as president. AD was a rather attractive choice for the officers, in that its version of ‘social democracy’ was limited to the formal-institutionalization of the Venezuelan state and did not extend to the social reforms proposed by such groups as the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). In other words, AD promised both to ‘modernize’ state institutions within the bounds of contemporary liberal democracy while containing the potentially destabilizing effects of social reformers such as the PCV. (Indeed, Betancourt would continue to outdo himself in his demand that AD – a member of the socialist international to this day – distance itself from and marginalize ‘radical’ elements such as the PCV).

Betancourt led the junta until 1948, at which time his teacher, the author Romúlo Gallegos, was elected president by a landslide. However, by the time of the so-called ‘telephone coup’ which saw him deposed NINE MONTHS LATER, nary a person took to the streets to defend Venezuelan democracy. When the exiled AD leadership called for its unions to lead a general strike the following year, the military junta easily crushed the sparsely attended events and declared all AD-affiliated unions as illegal as the party with which they were associated.

How could this have been?

Put simply, AD’s three years in power saw them use the office of the presidency not to extend Venezuelan democracy nor to ‘modernize’ the state apparatus, but rather to turn Venezuela into a single party state. It consolidated its control of trade unions in the burgeoning oil sector, tempered the potential unpopularity of limiting constitutional rights and guarantees with handouts from oil profits and made a constitutional institution of the presidential appointment of governors and mayors (which is ironic, given this is precisely what many ADecos (erroneously) accuse Chávez of doing with his proposed constitutional reforms today) – among other examples. In other words, AD used its first three years of executive power to build itself as a party, and subordinated the mobilization and ‘development’ of the population to this end. It furthermore ‘did not play well with others,’ doing all it could to keep other parties such as COPEI and the CPV as far from power as possible.

Romúlo Betancourt was the chief architect of this process.

As it built itself as a party, AD also managed to alienate significant power brokers in Venezuelan society – such as the Catholic Church and rural landowners. This did not sit well with the military officers who installed AD into power with the promise of returning ‘decency’ and ‘patriotism’ to the country. In other words, the 1948 coup as well as the lack of any substantive resistance thereto was made possible by the cynicism AD’s behavior inspired vis-à-vis ‘democracy’ among Venezuelans.

‘Puntofijo’On the 23rd of January, 1958 Marcos Peréz Jiménez was overthrown by what Fernando Coronil describes as
“neither a traditional military coup nor a mass uprising from below. Rather it was, in a peculiar but real way, the crystallization of collective discontent – from different classes, sectors, and bulwarks of power, including the military – against the increasingly arbitrary and personal rule of Pérez Jiménez. Peculiar, because these groups had not participated in common struggles and were not linked by interdependent sectoral interests. Real, because they were nevertheless united in their opposition to an unresponsive government and shared an interest in a state that would use the nation’s fiscal resources on their behalf. Despite their sharp economic and ideological differences, these groups formed a community of interests and ideals on the basis of a shared orientation toward the state as the main source of collective and individual welfare.”
In October of that year, the ‘Puntofijo’ pact (named for the house was owned by COPEI founder Rafael Caldera in which it was signed) was signed between representatives of AD, COPEI and the URD (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente –Christian Democratic—and Unión Republicana Democratica – slightly to the left of AD, a Social Democratic party—respectively. By 1960 URD quit the pact). ‘Puntofijo’ was necessitated by the excessive sectarianism of AD’s first three years in power. All it really amounted to, however, was an extension of who was allowed to participate in the same old scheme. Puntofijo consisted in
1. The exclusion of the Communist party from Venezuelan politics;
2. An agreement among the signatories to respect the constitutionality of elections (i.e. not to take part in the military adventurism that defined the political past of Venezuela); 3. An agreement to rule through national unity governments. That is to say, not to exclude absolutely the parties which lost elections;
4. An agreement to establish – before any election – an accord of minimum agreement among the contestants.

In other words, Puntofijo extended the single-party rule of AD’s idyllic first triennium into a two-party rule that would last until 1993. As with any such arrangement, the democratic potential of any election or other institutionally-minded reform was always already neutered. It guaranteed that any change in government would not bring about significant changes in policy or policy-orientation, nor in the socio-political ‘status quo’ – an agreement as mutually beneficial to all the signatories as it was harmful to the majority of Venezuelans.

In this way, Puntofijo offered a democratic-veneer to the authoritarian system it ostensibly replaced. Its record of economic mishandling (I am not the first to wonder how a country that “during the oil boom of the midseventies…obtained more dollars from its oil exports than those given to all European nations by the Marshall Plan” could by 1995 have “the highest inflation and lowest growth rate in Latin America.”), nepotism and clientelism doomed it to failure almost from the outset. What is amazing is that it lasted as long as it did.

AD will always be associated with this order. Romúlo Betancourt was the first president elected under this scheme as well as one of its principle architects. Carlos Andrés Peréz was the last (but more on Andrés Peréz in another post). The excesses of the former during the first AD triennium brought about the ‘hiatus’ of the Marcos Peréz Jiménez dictatorship. The neoliberal reforms of the latter brought about the deaths of the Caracazo and the political and economic chaos of the 1990s. Worse, for opposition politicos and constituents, Andrés Peréz made the Bolivarian Revolution not only possible, he made it necessary.

Today again

I would like to return to the commemorative graffiti I encountered earlier today.The composition of the agitprop is ambiguous in temporal and spatial terms, confusing the orientation of both the message and the party it represents in a cacophony of symbols and referents.

First, we have Betancourt in the background, mid-sentence, gazing with a sort of certainty into the future. In this sense Betancourt – as well as the party and the legacy which he represents – is ready and waiting to return, uninterrupted, to bring a ‘better’ future to Venezuela. In this sense, ‘the time has come’ signals the ostensible ripeness of this particular political conjuncture for AD’s return.

However, the black and white of the image conjures a sense of return more than it does a time to move forward. In this sense, the image refers to the return to a past when AD’s constituency held control over economic and political power in Venezuela. In this sense it directly addresses the personal economic and social interests of the observer. If the viewer is an ADeco, or of the class position to make them potentially so, it signals their personal return to power and ‘stable’ prosperity. It promises the return to a ‘simpler’ time in which AD guaranteed 'stability' and a clear path to the future.

However again, the party’s shield is the only vibrantly-colored aspect of the image, in the blue-yellow-and red of the national flag. Its contrast to the black and white of image and text suggest that the party is both of the past and of the future, that it is in effect a force of both ‘modernization’ and all that was good about a bygone era. This visual content is reinforced by the stately bronze of the 66 of the party’s anniversary, which represents AD’s wisdom, age, and experience.

The heavy elipsis following 'the time has come' at the image's center again leaves much room for play. The only certainty of what precisely the time has come FOR is that it has to do with AD. Whether this means a return to 1941 or blazing forward to 2008 and beyond is intentionally open. The time for what? Certainly more than merely the 66th anniversary of the party? For an AD-led ‘democratic rebirth’? For a new puntofijo? Or, for another coup to be followed by AD rule a la 1945-48?

The choice of ‘Conciudadanos’ (‘fellow citizens’ or ‘countrymen’) provides the key to this mystery. First, note that ‘conciudadanos’ is left in the masculine form, whereas it is becoming more and more common for political discourse in Spanish speaking parts of América to differentiate the gender of terms – saying, for example ‘Ciudadano y Ciudadana’ in order to be more inclusive and, dare I say, ‘politically correct.’ In other words, the image/text is interpolates not only a particular audience or observer (one who can even recognize the image) but also all of their father fantasies. Betancourt is in this image the fantasy father who can be chosen by the son. And as such, a doubly-invested masculine figure of robust individualism at the heart of most notions of contemporary liberal democracy and the fetish of ‘choice.’

The hailing that takes place in the title ‘conciudadano’ is an obvious interpellation of the observer, but it is important to note that it is one which operates on the register of the formal-political. That is, it calls for the passersby to recognize in the image and in themselves an ostensibly shared legal-juridical identity. This stands in direct contrast to the rhetoric of the Bolivarian revolution which is all but always articulated in collective-nationalist (that of ‘Pueblo’) or classist (that of ‘Companer@’) terms. The contrast between the two couldn’t be starker, and ultimately serves to filter who can and who cannot receive the content of the message. By addressing the ‘citizen’ the image appeals to the individual – to the autonomized member of the modern nation state which AD ostensibly helped make of Venezuela. This individual is a far cry from the collective identity being forged by the Bolivarians.

The image, like AD, ultimately fail in this attempt to present themselves as of the past and the sole road to the future. One is tempted to remember Bob Dole’s failed US presidential campaign of 1996, where he countered Bill Clinton’s ‘Bridge to the 21st Century’ slogan with his own ‘Bridge to the past’ – a gaff which just reinforced the public’s perception that he was a past his prime politician. In much the same way, the AD image’s ambiguity and dissonance make it positively productive only to its ever-dwindling constituency.

One can just as easily (perhaps even more easily) from an opposition perspective read the ‘the time has come’ as the time to close the book on AD completely. Indeed, as reinforced by the expectant image of Betancourt, one is reminded that AD founded and ended the system which made the Bolivarian Revolution all but inevitable.

1 comment:

Charles said...

"‘democracy with adjectives’ of political scientists in the north."

Judith Butler, eh?