Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Adventures in Gringolandia...

I'm back in the US after 10 days of Trini monsoons and plenty of soccer with my godson.

St. Louis, from where I am writing this, is a cold, windy hell of a place that makes me think maybe the invites for xmas in Venezuela weren't such a bad idea (nothing like the midwestern banshee whissssshhhhh of wind against a drafting hotel window to make you want to strip off your clothes and start chanting USA! USA! USA!).

...and i leave for Duluth in a few days, that oughtta be a whole hell of a lot better!

coming soon:

- polished-ish entries on enmity and Venezuela, the regional autonomy movement in Zulia, Venezuela, and analysis of the upcoming constitutional reform on presidential reelection.
- I also hope to broaden the scope of this blog a bit, as i'm no longer in Venezuela. I'll continue to write on the Bolivarian Revolution, but want to weigh in on other 'pressing and asinine' issues of the day, since, heh, this is a blog, right?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yadda, yadda, yadda

Leaving Venezuela is a strange feeling, again.

I’ve done what I came to do, seen more than I ever hoped to see, and have my work cut out for me when I return to the lab after the holidays. The last days are, like they were last year, a mix of ‘what should I be sure to see,’ entropy and exhaustion, and the frantic search for gifts and random bullshit trophies for the folks back home…(never my favorite part of travel, the obligatory flag keychain search)…

My trip out west was incredible. Maracaibo is the coldest city in Venezuela (only because everyone and everywhere is ridiculously air conditioned). One of my projects for back in the states is an essay on the regional autonomy movement in the state of Zulia, of which Maracaibo is the capital city.

I got to visit a massive commune being built outside the city by PDVSA, the state oil company and talked with Nelson Sanchez -- an old school guerrilla and early influence on Chávez's socialism in the 1980s. Today he is in charge of the 'ideological development' of PDVSA employees (not as spooky as it sounds. He oversees things like the distribution of funds to the building of the commune, producing pamphlets on Feminism and the like).

Mérida, a university town in the Andes, reminded me a bit of Santa Cruz – hippies, spoiled college brats and the climate and all.

Barinas, the birthplace of Chávez located in the upper Llanos, was an eye-opener. Chávez’s family runs the place, and no one is happy with them – especially not the reds. I heard more than once the expression “Aqui hay Chavismo, pero no hay la revolución” (We have Chavismo here, but we don’t have the Revolution). part of this has to do with the fact that Chávez’s dad, who was governor for 8 years, is old, and has been rather ill for the past 4 years. But part of it also has to do with the corruption of his brother, Adán, or so many tell me.

But at the same time, Barinas is something of a boom town, and has only really entered the map in the past 10 years. The problems of the city – infrastructure, especially – are thus perhaps inevitable. For example, the power was continuously going out while we were there – the city is building new malls but not updating its electric girds accordingly. These two conflicting social and political pressures will certainly have an impact on the future of the revolution both in that state and in the country more generally.

I was drunk all weekend, what’d I miss?
---Importantly, in the regional elections of 23-N, two prominent figures of the ‘internal right’ – Diosdado Cabello and Jesse Chacón – lost election bids for a second term as governor of Miranda state and mayor of Sucre Municipality, respectively. Many of us hoped that this sort of popular rejection would FINALLY wake up Chávez and we could be done with these shits. Unfortunately no. Cabello was named minister of infrastructure (a particularly disconcerting appointment, given his poor performance as governor) and Chacón retaind his previous seat as minister of communications.

---Since the elections, there has been a spate of violence in Aragua state. Bosses have assassinated four radical labor organizers. So far, one person has been detained in relation with the hired homicides, but the killings continue.

---Chávez is on the campaign trail again, pushing for a constitutional amendment that will allow him to run for president again in 2012. I’m reasonably confident he’ll win this, and barring catastrophe, will win the presidency again (most like running against Henrique Capriles Radonski, of the US-funded party Primero Justicia, the ultra right ‘homeland, family and property’ movement, infamous leader of an attack on the Cuban embassy during the 2002 coup and newly elected governor of Miranda)…

Off to Roti-landia
To Trinidad tomorrow morning. I’ll try to post again when I’m back in the states. cheers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Numbers, Enmity, y una Pausa

The final numbers for all the races from last Sunday are finally being published. All in all, the news remains mixed. The PSUV, in all the races, won with approximately 53%, or 5,073,774 votes. The opposition took 3,948,912 or 42%. If we compare these numbers to those of the failed recall referendum of last December, the Chavistas were able to mobilize more of the base, while the opposition did significantly worse than they did during the ‘no’ campaign.

The PSUV also dominated the mayoral seats up for grabs, winning 263 (in many key cities) compared to the opposition’s 48. Where the PSUV lost its most significant ground, in Caracas, (including the post of Alcaldía Mayor, mayor of Sucre and governor of Miranda) the blame can only lie with the performance of the previous Chavista Alcalde Mayor Juan Barreto, whose performance was so poor he was basically told by Chávez not to stand for reelection, even though he was eligible.

It looks as if the mobilization of the middle and upper middle classes against the PSUV was decisive last Sunday. Venezuela is thus as polarized as ever. The poor majority backs the Socialist project en masse, while the business classes remain fearful of Socialism on an abstract, ideological level. PSUV candidate of the ‘internal right’ (and loser in the municipality of Sucre) Jesse Chacón lamented this fact yesterday, suggesting that the middle and upper middle classes weren’t sufficiently convinced that “socialism also includes them.”


The elections went off peacefully enough, and the aftermath has been uniformly tranquil in all but a few places throughout the country. Here in Caracas, the opposition victors have been sounding a conciliatory tone, promising to govern ‘for all caraqueñas and caraqueños.’ Symbolically, Antonio Ledezma, the metro mayor elect, is calling for the city to be cleaned of election propaganda, to wipe away the appearance of a divided city. However, some Chavistas are already preparing for the worst. Members of the ‘hot corner collective,’ who meet in Plaza Bolívar (which is also the location of the metro mayor’s offices) held a meeting on Monday in which they reminded themselves and the public of the last time Caracas had an opposition mayor.

Describing the mayor-elect as a ‘coup monger, yankee wannabe, and guarimbero (a proponent of the violent street protests and blockades mobilized by the opposition in 2004),’ the collective expressed the fear that the hard rightwing opposition will feel emboldened and protected by the mayor. This is a pretty common fear among Chavistas, and the next few years promise to be interesting, to say the least.

However, I can’t help but see a silver lining in all this. Throughout the past ten years of Chavismo, every radicalization of the movement has been triggered by the opposition’s missteps and attacks. With the likelihood of an emboldened opposition and the loss in stature of rightwing Chavistas like Chacón – whose above quote suggests he has a rather weak notion of what Socialism entails – the possibility of deepening the Bolivarian Revolution may have increased in the past few days.

The key contradiction to pay attention to, however, is that between the politics of enmity – which on an affective level are quite intense here in Venezuela – and the faith in democracy and the rule of law exhibited by nearly all quarters of national politics. That is to say, the politics of enmity calls for the eradication of the enemy, for the creation of a space devoid of their presence, where as democracy in its western liberal guise (including Venezuela’s radical and more direct democracy) is based on a formal pluralism which puts a premium on tolerance. And we see this daily in Venezuelan politics. The constitution is one of the most common political props in the land, and all PSUV victory or concession speeches have included a phrase along the lines of “we respect the constitution, we are democrats.”

Yet, at the same time, Venezuela is one of the most partisan places in the world (in both the stupid sense of US politics as well as in the notion of militancy and one sidedness that transcends mere party platforms and competitions). Chavistas and opposition alike see their other as a blight on the country and the world. The difference of course is that the opposition’s position is of necessity agonistic in that their notion of enmity requires the maintenance of the poor (who else would clean their toilets?) whereas the Chavistas hold a very real antagonism that goes beyond bourgeois dialectics. Their fight is that absolute and destructive one that desires a world without the bourgeoisie, without this particular generation of domestic opposition, without the class structure that persists in Venezuela despite four years in the pursuit of 21st century socialism.

Y una Pausa:
I’m off to the west of the country for a week or so. I’ll be in Maracaibo (center of the opposition’s strength) and Mérida, in the Andes. I’m not taking my computer, so I’ll also most likely not post until I’m back in Caracas. Cheers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Not Venezuela Related, but

...worth posting.


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Next Day

While I slept, the National Electoral Council announced that Carabobo and Táricha went to the opposition. If you’ve read the NYTimes triumphalist take on it, then you already know that this effectively means that the opposition won the major population centers in Venezuela. Overall, the PSUV took roughly 5,300,000 votes while the opposition won about 4,000,000 – which is a few hundred thousand less than they garnered in the 2007 constitutional referendum.

All told, Chavistas now control 17 states, and the opposition 6.

Venezuela Before

Venezuela After (note the ‘media luna’ in the West to which I referred last entry)

So, what does this mean? The major surprise of the day was clearly the lost of Aristobúlo Istúriz, who was seen not only as a ‘candidate for everyone,’ but was a fairly decent Chavista. His loss really needs to be chalked up to the utter failure of Juan Barreto, the current Alcaldía Mayor. Though Barreto is popular in many sectors of Caracas, many others think he took the money that should have been spent on the city’s roads, schools and security and inhaled it nasally through gold plated million dollar bills. The fact that Caracas still ranks among the world’s murder capitals and that its infrastructure remains insufficient for its population meant any Chavista candidate would have a lot of explaining to do in his or her campaign. But no one – not even Antonio Ledezma, the opposition candidate himself – thought the PSUV would lose in Caracas, and certainly not by a 7.5 point margin.

The next few days will of course be filled with reflection and self-criticism on the part of PSUV militants and directors, as they should be. The loss of Caracas is huge, but not the end of the world. Zulia and Carabobo were always going to be difficult. The danger in the latter case is that, knowing Carabobo was going to be a rough fight, the PSUV opted to run Mario Silva, host of Venezuela Television’s ‘La Hojilla’ (The Razorblade). Silva and ‘La Hojilla’ (in which Silva and guests mock, debunk and threaten the opposition) are popular amongst hardline Chavistas, and to say the least, he is a divisive character – loved by militants, loathed by the middle class and the opposition. The hope, I assume, was that Silva the firebrand would be able to mobilize more of the base than he would alienate the ‘ni-ni’ crowd, especially considering the fact that his opponent was a mafioso. That obviously failed, though it is worth noting that the ostensible PSUV vote was split between Silva and outgoing governor Luis Acosta, who was expelled from the party and ran as an independent. With the votes that went to Acosta, Silva would have carried the day.

The failure of this strategy could strengthen the hand of conservative Chavistas, adding punctuation to their calls for moderation and dialogue.

Chavistas will be happy that they were able to mobilize more than a million more voters than they were able to last December (this is still, predictably, less than turned out for Chávez’s reelection in 2006). In Chávez’s words at last night’s press conference, “This was the first trial by fire for the PSUV, and we triumphed.”

This was Venezuela’s 12th election since Chávez took office, and the second moment in which Chávez had to acknowledge gains made by the opposition. Playing the president, he congratulated the victorious opposition candidates, and asked them to do what is right for Venezuela and not “fall back” into their old, anti-democratic and oligarchic ways. Holding up a copy of the constitution, he asked who could still call Venezuela a dictatorship.

Noting the distinctly red hue of the Venezuelan map, he repeated his call for a ‘Revolution within the Revolution’ and a deepening of the democratic process in Venezuela.

The PSUV’s vicepresident, Alberto Müller Rojas, also congratulated opposition victors, but remained militant. When a reporter from Globovisión – a virulently anti-Chávez news network – asked how the government would deal with the overwhelming victory (!) of the opposition, and if it would be willing to dialogue with opposition governors, he had to quiet down the ire PSUVistas in attendance. He then responded, “Of course we’ll work with them. But this is not a dialogue, this is a debate, and it will be a polemic. Venezuela will never go back to the way it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It will be a debate because we have very different visions for Venezuela, we have very different visions for Latin America, for the world, and for humanity.”

However, the opposition most likely won’t show up to the party – their only platform is anti-Chavismo. In the debate between socialism – however defined – and neoliberal capitalism – which is their fundamental goal – they know they will always lose amongst the majority of Venezuelans. They tend to copy Chavista social programs, as I’ve written on before in this blog, and run on ‘quality of life’ issues foreign to the majority of Venezuelans.

The following months are most likely going to present some rather difficult choices for the Bolivarian Revolution. Declining world market prices in oil and the intensifying global economic crisis will negatively impact the government’s ability to fund its social programs without radically altering the fundamental class structures and distribution of wealth in Venezuela. Inflated oil prices throughout the past 10 years have allowed the government to democratize consumption without any sort of corresponding social revolution or transformation. That is to say while rich have retained the overall percentage of income in Venezuela throughout the Bolivarian Revolution’s various phases – they have in no way been expropriated – the poor majority of Venezuelans have seen their share of the national wealth increase in terms of purchasing power and social programs. The days of this political luxury may be nearing their end.

The choice for the government in the face of this situation will be one of who to choose. With less money, they will have to decide in which direction to redistribute wealth.

Opposition governors in control of the key money making sectors of Venezuela – Caracas, Carabobo and Zulia – is a practical obstacle, but perhaps a strategic benefit. In the first case, state level positions are powerful in Venezuela, and can allow the opposition to block government attempts to channel oil money to the poor or to take over factories. At the same time, an obvious enemy is a good thing, especially now that He™ will be replacing Bush in 2 months. Opposition sabotage will only further mobilize and more deeply commit the base of the PSUV. One can only hope that the leadership of the party will be up to the challenge.

See also:


Exhausted and back in my room after a looooooooong day.

(First, immediate-reaction post election post)

A recent Latinobarometro poll (a polling firm based in Chile) has once again found that Venezuelans, on average, have more faith in democracy than any other national group questioned (link, with more links en español aquí http://www.borev.net/2008/11/again_with_the_venezuelans_and.html)..and today was certainly no exception in the now twelve (12!!!) elections that have taken place in "the Chávez era..."

Cutting to the Chase Department: The local and regional elections resulted in an at best mixed result for the PSUV. At the gubernatorial level (the only numbers I have at the moment) the PSUV took 17 of 23 seats. Two governorships are, as of 3:00 am Caracas time, too close to call. The problem is that the Chavistas lost Miranda state – part of which includes sectors of Caracas – and failed to gain Zulia – center of petroleum production in the country. Even worse, the states that hang in the balance are Tachira and Carabobo. Tachira shares a border with Zulia and Colombia in the west of the country. Carabobo is a chief center of Venezuelan industry: tires, petrochemicals, paper, and more. If the opposition gains the former, the possibility of a ‘media luna’ situation a la Bolivia’s separatist movement is quite real. If they take Carabobo, they then have an opportunity to grab the purse strings of the revolution.

Caracas Department: Also announced this evening were the results of the two city level positions in the capital that Chavistas hoped to retain: Libertador (one of the city’s largest municipalities) and the ‘Alcaldía Mayor’ (Caracas has 6 mayors, 5 for the municipalities that make up the city, and one ‘city mayor’ – both were previously in Chavista hands). The PSUV candidate for the Libertador race, Jorge Rodriguez, won. The problem is that he is rather solidly a face of the ‘internal right’ of Chavismo, i.e., his revolutionary credentials and his vision of where the country needs to go are decidedly wanting. The PSUV candidate for Alcaldía Mayor, Aristobúlo Istúriz, lost. This was a major blow. Not only has he been saying all the right things throughout the campaign – about the necessity of ‘deepening’ the revolution, a key phrase for radical Chavistas – he was seen by many as a possible successor to Chávez should the fight for his reelection fail to bear fruit. A possible silver lining to this major, major loss is that Diosdado Cabello, current governor of Miranda state and perhaps THE person who best defines the ‘endogenous right’ lost, meaning his political aspirations have suffered a significant setback.

Turnout Department:
I spent the entire day on the pavement, doing my own work and sending field reports to the good folks at http://radiovenezuelaenvivo.blogspot.com -- and for future events, if you dare, these are the folks to listen to on the interweb about all things venezuelan), walking across the city center and back and then halfway back again. Of the voting centers visited, lines were consistently various magnitudes of huge. Opposition and middle-of-the-road media all warned of a major ‘tropical depression’ that was soon to add to the city and country’s woes. This was a potentially dangerous thing, as the PSUV’s greatest foe in these elections was always going to be abstention (which is what caused the failed reforma last December). But the inundation didn’t show. Despite the heat and the often direct sunlight, folks in their lines seemed calm – annoyed at the wait, for sure, but not stone-throwing annoyed.

I went to vote with a friend of mine. We stood in line for over 2 hours. However, when her time finally came, she was in and out in 5 minutes. The wait gave us plenty of time to compare US and Venezuelan electoral systems, during which time I tried my best to explain to her the Electoral College. I quickly realized how difficult that particular institution is to explain in English, let alone Spanish.

All told, 65.45% of eligible voters turned out. A record.

End of the Day Department: After walking the city, I somehow magically ended up in the PSUV press headquarters. And I ended up there for six (6) hours. It was good to have a finger directly on the pulse of the situation, if a bit boring during the intervals between statements from Alberto Müller Rojas, the PSUV’s octogenarian (and fully kick-ass) vice president. I smoked too many cigarettes, talked to too many members of the opposition media (they still suck), and my dogs is tired!

The High and the Low Department: Of course, the Low/FUCK THE PO-LICE first. Rather early in the day, while I was checking out polling places in a relatively middle-class part of town, I got stopped for a ‘routine drugs and alcohol search’ by two members of the Caracas police. The ‘dry laws’ (written about in a previous post) have been enforced a helluva lot more than I ever could have imagined, knowing Caracas. OF COURSE you can find something somewhere if you look, but I haven’t encountered the same quantity of dudes drinking beer in their cars or walking down the street to which I’ve become accustomed.

Anyway, while one cop was checking my water bottle, his partner nicked BsF. 100 (I dunno...~$US 20) out of my ‘emergency pocket’ – always a good idea to keep money in a few places on your person whilst traveling, right? Just to be clear, let me repeat that: I got robbed by the police. I’m that effing gringo. The great thing is that every Venezuelan to whom I told my tale of woe responded almost 100% in the same manner: “Those motherfuckers. Fuck them. Assholes. Of course, that happens a lot.”

High point: whilst at the PSUV press conference, just after the national electoral council announced the results, the place started swarming with GI JOEs. I thought something was amiss. When I asked a friend, he responded rather matter-of-factly, “Chávez is probably coming.”

And everyone else had the same intuition. A gauntlet quickly formed, with inner-circle folks forming a human chain to keep up the barriers on either side. We moved to the aisle that was formed, and sure enough, 15 minutes later, doors opened and out came Chávez, surrounded by security and scrambling reporters. (I have photos, but left the connecting cable for camera-computer in California…I’ll post a pile when I get back in touch with it…) long story short:

Me: “Epale hermano presidente”

Chávez: (grasping my outstretched hand) “Epale, hermano”


The president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, one Mister Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías shook the hand of the dirtiest gringo in the room. I tried to get a comment from the President, to gauge how he was affected by the situation, but he was too awestruck by the honor bestowed upon him to express himself properly.

And in other news, here’s the state-by-state breakdown as we have it now:
65% turnout
Yaracuy chavismo
Delta Amacuro chavismo
Vargas chavismo
Zulia opposition
Apure chavismo
Aragua chavismo
Barinas chavismo
Bolivar chavismo
Cojedes chavismo
Falcon chavismo
Guarico chavismo
Lara chavismo
Merida chavismo
Miranda opposition
Monagas chavismo
Nueva Esparta opposition
Portuguesa chavismo
Trujillo chavismo
Sucre chavismo
Anzotegui chavismo
Libertador chavismo
Alcaldia Mayor opposition
Carabobo and Tachira too close to declare winner

see also:
"Chávez Supporters Win 17 out of 23 Venezuelan States, but Lose 3 Most Populous"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Of Refugee centers and Alí Primera on Election's Eve

Yesterday, as I was wandering around talking to Caraqeños about the elections and the rain (most were just as worried about the latter as they were about the former) I received a message from a friend inviting me to “an event” at a center for those displaced by the rains. Twenty minutes later, I was piled in the back of a pickup truck flying down the Francisco Fajardo Freeway talking with Communist Party militants about elections, Alí Primera, and – strangely enough – Pearl Jam.

What turned out to be the first center we would visit was a factory that had been occupied by the community and transformed into a community center in the Antimano district. There were medical staff, a non-perishable and hot food distribution center, many many beds and a table where refugees could have replacements made of their identification cards. (Absolutely NOTHING gets done here without ID (Cédula) – I tried to but a falafel the other day and they asked me for mine. When I told them I was a foreigner and didn’t have one, the clerk was a bit put off but settled for my passport!)

There were kids everywhere, faces freshly painted by some roaming clown, playing soccer with any bit of detritus that could be kicked, screaming through the din of adult conversations and organizational meetings. Really, kids the stuff of poetry, bouncing red balloons through groups of tired faced adults and laughing laughing laughing. Playing through the puddles of a converted factory floor.

It was only after 15 minutes after arriving or so that I gathered the event that was taking place was to be put on by the group on to which I had attached myself. Embarrassingly, it was ½ hour after that that realized that the event was in large part centered around a performance by Sandino Primera. Embarrassing, because I was talking, playing soccer, and laughing with him for a bit without realizing who he is and why everyone wanted to say hello to him.

His father, Alí, was a folk singer (“The People’s Singer,” in fact) who died in a car accident in 1985. A Communist Party militant known for playing in factories, barrios, schools and streets – in addition to festivals like the Central American Peace Concerts held in Managua in 1983 (during which time he unapologetically defended the Sandinistas against the United States) – this refugee center would have been precisely the place where Alí would have appeared. When his son, Sandino played classics by his father like ‘Disparos’ everyone not only sang along, they rocked the house in a manner you might not expect to see in a refugee center. When he played ‘Techos de Cartón’ (lyrics below), a particularly pertinent song in the given situation, I almost cried. (Anyone who has seen the Mexican film 'Voces Inocentes' about the civil war in El Salvador is familiar both with the song and the sentiment).

Next we were off to another refugee center, this one in Catia. It was a similar situation, as far as services are concerned. However, this center was rather different. Built precisely for this sort of situation, this structure had family dormitories (men and women were separated at the previous site) a cafeteria and sporting fields. In all between the two centers, we encountered hundreds of families displaced by the deadly rains of 2008.

Techos de Cartón (Alí Primera)

Que triste se oye la lluvia
En los techos de carton
Que triste vive mi gente
En las casas de carton

Viene bajando el obrero
Casi arrastrando sus pasos
Por el peso del sufrir
Mira que mucho ha sufri..
Mira que pesa el sufrir

Arriba deja la mujer preñada
Abajo esta la ciudad
Y se pierde en su maraña
Hoy es lo mismo que ayer
Asunto sin mañana

Que triste se oye la lluvia
En los techos de carton
Que triste vive mi gente
En las casas de carton

Niños color de mi tierra
Con sus mismas cicatricez
Millonarios de lombrices
Y por eso
Que tristes viven los niños
En las casas de carton
Que alegres viven los perros
Casa del explotador
Usted no lo va a creer
Pero hay escuelas de perros
Y les dan educacion
Pa’ que no muerdan los diarios
Pero el patron!
Hace años muchos años
Que esta mordiendo al obrero

Que triste se oye la lluvia
En los techos de carton
Que lejos pasa la esperanza
En las casas de carton

... and the english translation:

How sad does the rain sound
On the roofs made of cardboard
How sad it is, the way my people live
In houses made of cardboard

Here comes the worker
Practically dragging each step
Carrying the weight of suffering
Look how much he’s suffered
Look at the weight of such suffering

He leaves his woman pregnant
Down there is the city
And he loses himself in his maze
Today is the same as yesterday
A situation without a tomorrow

How sad does the rain sound
On the roofs made of cardboard
How sad it is, the way my people live
In houses made of cardboard

Children the same color of my country’s earth
With their same scars
Millions of worms
And because of that
How sad it is, the way the children live
In houses made of cardboard
How happy do dogs live in the
House of the employer
You won’t believe it
But there are schools for dogs
Where they receive education
So they won’t bite the newspapers
But the employer!
For years, many years
Has been biting the worker

How sad does the rain sound
On the roofs made of cardboard
How far away, does hope pass by
In the houses made of cardboard

Friday, November 21, 2008

During Elections, Caracas is Soaked, Caracas is Dry

Many of my plans for this research jaunt have been complicated by two serious factors: I’ve basically been sick since I landed: first with the flu, then with a mild case of food poisoning. Secondly, and more disconcerting, it has been raining almost without pause.

Today, I had plans to attend an event at the central university, but it was cancelled because yesterday the rains were so intense that at least 5 people died in Caracas proper, and over 150 were displaced in one zone of the city alone due to landslides, the collapse of containing walls, and floods. The paper reports today that the subsoil is 90% full to the brim and the drainage systems are over capacity.

People are starting to compare these pre-election rains to the monsoons that came before the 1999 constitutional referendum, which left thousands dead and still missing when entire mountainsides decided to relocate. (At the time, the archbishop of Caracas said that god was punishing the citizens of Venezuela for voting for Chávez’s constitutional reform. Similarly, officials of the church blamed Venezuela’s Declaration of Independence from Spain for the 1812 earthquake that leveled Caracas…)

Also today, the campaign season officially ended at 6 am. It is now constitutionally prohibited for candidates or parties to hold rallies, speeches, etc in their pursuit of public office.

And at 2:00, the lamest weekend in the world officially kicked off as liquor stores closed their doors. Walking through central Caracas, I saw oh-so-many blokes wandering around with cases of beer on their shoulders and bottles of Something Special™ tucked into their back pockets…pobrecitos. At the Mercado on the corner nearest my apartment, the owners had taped cardboard over the beer cooler with “No se vende licores. Ley Seca.” We’ll see, however, how long this lasts. The thing about ‘black’ or ‘parallel’ markets (and in Venezuelan, the informal economy is larger than the official one) is that they tend not to follow the rules. The ‘dry laws’ might effectively mean that beers on the street will run at concert prices…

Either way, elections aside, this’ll be the first time in the history of the world where everyone will be counting the seconds until Monday.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

(translation) Manuel Rosales’ Business Networks Exposed

Deputy Mario Isea, who resides over the National Assembly’s Oversight committee, held a press conference on Wednesday [18 November] in which he presented documents, photographs and registrations of the businesses and properties of Manuel Rosales and his foreign business partners. Rosales will have to give explanations about this network of properties when he appears before the Oversight committee on the 28th of November.

Presa Web YVKE, Wednesday 19 November, 2008 – Isea presented the business registrations of the present governor of Zulia, Manuel Rosales, as well as those of his family, his secretary Maritza Bastidas and his friends in Orlando, Florida (USA). Several businesses are known to make up the network, and the investigative committee does not yet know if all pertinent information has come to light. Apart from the RT International Group and the Agricultural company ‘La Milagrosa’ – both of which Deputy Mario Isea already addressed in a press conference last Friday – figure others with strange names such as MR & M, New World International Reality Inc., New World Investments Reality Inc., etc.

Set up of the Rosales’ businesses was always the same: first the company would be put under the name of Maritza Bastidas of a third party, and then the directorate and headquarters of the company would be changed, generally to an office property owned by Rosales. The names which appear most often [in the documents] are Rosales, Tata, Bastidas, and others tied to the Governor of Zulia.

Isea presented photographs of the mansions and real estate purchased by Bastidas and Rosales, and explained that the two airplanes in which Rosales habitually flies are owned by Tobías Carrero, who is also a part of this network.

“This man is not a politician, he’s a scoundrel,” concluded Deputy Isea. “This is an international crime ring. I am making a call to all the opposition: don’t put your political future in the hands of this sort of man.”

Isea also affirmed that “the automatic solidarity of countries [opposed to the Bolivarian Revolution] with Rosales compromise themselves. All who express an automatic solidarity with Rosales without investigating any of this make themselves suspect.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dry Laws, Public Order and Military Protection in Advance of Local and Regional Elections

Caracas, 19 November, 2008—In a press conference yesterday, Interior and Justice Minister Tarek el Aissami announced that all police will be on stand-by in their precincts from Saturday the 22nd and that the sale of alcohol will be prohibited from 2 pm on Friday the 21st until 2 pm on Monday the 24th of November in preparation for local and regional elections on Sunday.

Aissami noted that in Venezuela there are 121,506 police functionaries organized in 123 bodies. This call to the barracks will not impact services, Aissami assured, but will make the police better prepared to respond to crises that might emerge around the elections for mayors, governors and city council members on the 23rd of this month.

Aissami also announced that police will be allowed to vote, and vote in uniform, but will not be able to do so while armed.

The measures announced yesterday by Aissami are in line with the ‘Plan Republica,’ which coordinates the actions of municipal police and the military to maintain peace on election day. Recent turmoil in the aftermath of elections in Bolivia and Nicaragua as well as the violent history of the domestic opposition here in Venezuela has been the cause of much concern amongst government supporters throughout the course of the campaign.

In other public order related election news, Minister of Defense, General Gustavo Rangel Briceño reiterated that the military has not been politicized and that “there has been no campaign in the barracks.” Briceño continued, “the functions of the National Armed Force (FAN, for its initials in Spanish) are restricted to three specific areas. First is the security and care of electoral spaces, persons, authorities and materials; the second is the transport of ballots to the places where they will be analyzed; and certainly, public order is the most important job.”

Briceño also noted that the FAN has begun the process of transforming schools throughout Venezuela into voting sites. “On Wednesday we will begin taking over schools in order to set up the antennas that will broadcast the results; we hope to begin the installation of voting booths on Friday; Saturday will be dedicated to final revisions and inspections and on Sunday from 5 am on we will be waiting for the poll workers to open the vote.”

See also:
“Venezuela Ready for first Completely Automated Election.” http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3959

“Plan República will Guarantee Security and Order during the Elections”

(This post includes translations from two stories in today's Últimas Noticias: "Cero caña y armas desde el viernes 21 a las 2pm" by Eligio Rojas; and "'El Ejército no hace campaña en los cuarteles'" by Lexander Loaiza)

(translation) ‘Plan República” Will Guarantee Security and Order during the Elections

Major General Jesús González González informed the program “The Window” on Friday that all the details have been tied together in order to guarantee order and the respect of the law during elections on the 23 of November. More than 140,000 security personal will be under the orders of the Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB, in Spanish) in order to respond to any eventuality.

Prensa Web YVKE, Friday 14 November, 2008 – On the program “La Ventana” on YVKE Mundial Randolph Borges and Enza Garía had Major General Jesús González González on as a guest, who spoke about the Plan República, in which the FANB will be stationed at all election sites to guarantee security and order during and after the elections.

“Whoever would like to promote disorder is going to meet the firm conviction of the FANB,” assured Major General González González. “We have 140,000 officers committed to security, and in each jurisdiction we have a reserve of officers ready in their barracks.”

Major General González González explained that “all security bodies on that day will stay in the barracks awaiting orders.” This includes not only the police, but also the investigative police corps, firefighters, intelligence officers, civil protection and other security bodies, that are grouped under the name “unified command.”

“The idea has been circulating that the police are going to stay at home, and that isn’t true. The police are going to stay from the first hour [of voting] in the barracks under order of their commanding officer. It will be him that will have control over security in the jurisdiction on election day.”

González González also said that on Thursday [14 November] there was a meeting at Strategic Operational Command with 27 barracks chiefs and the 5 commanders of strategic regional integral defense. “We made final revisions to the plan which we have been working on since August for the elections of 23 November and we tied together all that we had to for the upcoming electoral process.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Letter from Caracas: Remembering Danilo Anderson

The memories of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution at the close of election season

Caracas, 18 November, 2008 – Walter Benjamin famously reversed Marxism’s traditionally forward looking temporal politics (“let the dead bury the dead”) when he wrote, in the 12th of his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

In the course of three decades [social democracy] succeeded in almost completely erasing the name of Blanqui, whose distant thunder [Erzklang] had made the preceding century tremble. It contented itself with assigning the working-class the role of the savior of future generations. It thereby severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.

Benjamin reminds us of the importance of our revolutionary heritage in the formation of our present struggles. We are driven by ghosts – who we know – towards the future, which we cannot. Class hatred, love of a possible humanity; these are fed on the memories of what we have crossed to get here, not by the prospect of future obstacles or battles.

Benjamin’s intervention resonates today in Venezuela, as the Bolivarian Revolution readies itself for its first electoral test since the failed constitutional reform of December, 2007. Worse than the loss in terms of legislation which would have fortified and encouraged the transition away from capitalism, the failure of the reforma came about because the Chavistas were unable to mobilize for the yes vote. Memories of this self-imposed defeat have been weighing heavily on the minds of militants and speeches of candidates as the regional and local elections to be held on 23 November approach.

In a rally held today at Caracas’ Poliedro stadium, though, another memory was promient, as militants of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV for its initials in Spanish) took a moment to remember a fallen comrade of the Bolivarian Revolution. Today marks the forth anniversary of the death of Danilo Anderson, one of Venezuela’s leading judicial prosecutors, who was assassinated in what remains a point of intense point of contention in Venezuelan politics. In fitting fashion, at today’s rally the PSUV’s candidates in Caracas, President Hugo Chávez requested the assembled party members and militants to rise, and after a few words of remembrance, to raise the roof for a minute of celebration in honor of Anderson.

Anderson, initially an environmental prosecutor, was killed when two charges of plastic explosives exploded his SUV while on his way home from postgraduate studies in the Chaguaramos sector of Caracas (www.counterpunch.com was one of the few western media sources to cover the incident at the time. You can read Toni Solo’s original article at: http://www.counterpunch.org/solo11272004.html ). At the time, Anderson was the chief prosecutor in cases against key opposition figures of the 2002 coup and the failed recall referendum of August, 2004. Among the defendants were:

- 8 metro police accused of murder in the Puente Llaguno massacre (the direct trigger for the April coup);
- Private television stations that both fomented and colluded in the April coup;
- Opposition mayor of Baruta (a posh and very anti-Chavista sector of Caracas) Henrique Capriles, who led an attack on the Cuban embassy during the coup;
- Signatories of the infamous ‘Carmona decrees’ – named for the president of the national chamber of commerce who was installed as president after Chávez’s kidnapping on April 11 – which not only rolled back Chávez’s economic reforms but also rescinded all civil liberties;
- The NGO Súmate, the body funded by the (US based) National Endowment for Democracy, which spear-headed the 2004 presidential recall referendum.

In other words, Danilo had enemies that spanned the entirety of the Venezuelan opposition and on to the heart of US hemispheric designs. With his death, official investigations into the 2002 coup all but came to a standstill. More importantly, the Bolivarian Revolution lost one of its most dedicated, courageous and brightest minds.

The subsequent investigation into the murder of Danilo Anderson continues to be a major controversy in Venezuela. While the physical authors of the crime were eventually prosecuted and sentenced, Chavistas maintain that the true masterminds remain at large.

“Danilo Vive! La Lucha Sigue!” (Daniel Lives! The Struggle Continues!) echoed beyond the honorary minute today, and Anderson’s memory punctuated the rest of the afternoon’s speech by Chávez as a stark reminder of the enemies facing the Bolivarian Revolution. Just as importantly, Anderson as martyr and as symbol of a continuing struggle reminds us of the intensely democratic and deeply legal nature of the Bolivarian Revolution. Rather than rounding up the leaders of the 2002 coup and incarcerating them without trial in some Guantánamo-esque scheme, the government initiated investigations and followed constitutional procedure – even when that entailed the acquittal of officers involved directly in the temporary overthrow of Chávez.

To say that the struggle continues while invoking the spirit of Danilo Anderson thus entails an announcement of the Revolution’s continued fidelity to legality, to legislative means of social transformation, and – within these boundaries – to an untiring antagonism towards the opposition and their desire to block Venezuela’s current attempts to build a socialism for the 21st century. And in this context it is worth rehearsing the long and violent path the Venezuelan opposition chose before considering electoral competition as a means to end the Chávez presidency. The attempted coup of April 2002. The lock-out carried out by anti-Chavista state oil industry executives from December 2002 to January 2003. The infamous plan guarimba in which major thoroughfares of the Capital were blocked and police and Chavistas were attacked by roving opposition thug units. Continued collusion with the US government in the so-called ‘student movement’ of 2007 and in the major oppositions parties…

Also circulating throughout Caracas these weeks has been the specter of post-election violence in sister countries Bolivia and Nicaragua. In both cases, US-backed opposition movements launched violent protests against the government when the vote failed to go their way resulting in injuries, deaths, and damages.

The fear of this sort of thing happening in Venezuela again was piqued over this past weekend. Opposition candidate for governor of the state of Carabobo Alada Makled was arrested when police discovered hundreds of pounds of cocaine, airplanes and a clandestine airstrip in his ranch. On Saturday, an arms cache capable of arming a small army was discovered in a house in the upscale Baruta district of Caracas. Opposition leader (if one can really speak of the ever-fractious Venezuelan opposition having a ‘leader’) Manuel Rosales continues to refuse to respond to congressional subpoenas concerning his misallocation of funds in his current role as the governor of Zulia – one of the country’s richest states. In short, despite the continued deepening of Chavista hegemony, the opposition remains a threat that echoes less and less hollow on today’s grim anniversary.

In the midst of this abundance of memories, the revolution presses on. At today’s rally, Chávez argued that the real work of the revolution will begin after the victory at this Sunday’s polls. “After this electoral stage, we need a revolution within the revolution,” and he emphasized the need for revolutionaries to stamp out the corruption, bureaucratism and careerism that has persisted within the revolution. While the opposition remains something of a destabilizing force in the country, they enjoy absolutely no legitimacy amongst the vast majority of Venezuelans. Their constituency is static, as has been evidenced in every election, and they have failed to present any coherent vision for Venezuela in the course of their fractious and lackluster campaigns.

The real work of the Bolivarian Revolution, in other words, is that of constructing socialism for the 21st century, and socialism, it is worth underlining, does not grow out of the ballot box alone. The ‘deepening’ of the revolution called for by radical sectors of Chavismo and echoed by Chávez today can only take place with the further development of parallel institutions such as the communal councils, the centers for endogenous development, and the Bolivarian misiones. That is, 21st century socialism – if socialism is to mean anything in the 21st century – must come from the base, not from the experts and bureaucrats of the state apparatus. This effectively means, that the ‘red machine’ assembled today and mobilizing this election season has to find a way to keep up their momentum past Sunday’s elections and transfer their offensive against the conservative and statist sectors within Chavismo.

Sufficient revolutionary momentum, in this regard, cannot simply come from the vague hope for economic and political models in the distant future down the road. As Benjamin advised us decades ago, revolutionary energy hungers for stronger sustenance. In Venezuela, today’s dark anniversary reminds the Bolivarians of the exact nature of their enemies. It will be memories of fallen comrades like Danilo Anderson and that of the generations subjected to the slow systemic genocide of capitalism that will allow them to overcome their more intractable, intra-Bolivarian foes.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

(translation) US polling firm predicts PSUV to win 21 governorships.

This strikes me as a bit optimistic. If you watch the full video (follow the link, en español), the firm predicts that Rosales will lose his bid for mayor of Maracaibo, and that the PSUV will pick up seats in some of the poshest sectors of Caracas. If anyone reading this (is anyone reading this?) has their hands on other pre-election polling data, I'd love to see it.

the article:

(ABN/VTV/Aporrea.org – 15 November 2008)
http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124108.html -- with video at the link!

Caracas, 15 November, ABN – The general director of the polling firm North American Opinion Research, Carlos Sánchez, assured this Saturday that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will be victorious in 21 governorships, while the opposition will only win two.

Concerning candidates for mayor, Sánchez said that 329 (that is, 67% of those running in the regional elections) will go to Bolivarian candidates of the PSUV, while 110 will be won by opposition parties.

The polling firm North American Opinion Research has participated in various opinion polls in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Perú, Paraguay, Uruaguay y Venezuela, among other countries.

Al carajo! Yanqui de mierda!

Last night I went to a concert in the east of the city which culminated a series of nation-wide events sponsored by the youth wing of the PSUV (J-PSUV) meant to mobilize the vote. The PSUV campaign to this point seems to be taking on Obama-esque proportions, with a strong youth mobilization, interactive web presence, and the use of robo-text messaging to not only get people out to the polls, but to defend them from opposition sabotage. With the recent Nicaraguan elections fresh in the memory, where charges of vote fraud and US interference resulted in days of social unrest, the Chavista bloc is preparing itself for the worst while hoping for the best.

Anecdotally, this plays out like last night. At a friend’s house before the show, we sat and talked about the vote, about Manuel Rosales’ campaign for mayor of Maracaibo (the slogan isn’t ‘vote for me for mayor’ but rather ‘Manuel Rosales: the leader of Zulia’). Then we watched live news coverage of a police raid on an arms cache in Baruta, an upscale and rather anti-Chavista zone of Caracas. The rifles, side arms and ammunition were discovered in a house under dual ownership, and one of the owners was supposed to be in the United States at the time of the raid. As I wrote on Friday, an opposition candidate was arrested for alleged drug trafficking (and that story deepens as well: Makled, the man detained, owns the Makled Group, a pharmaceutical and chemical company that has long been accused of basing its income on making materials necessary to process coke). In other words, things are heating up.

But then there was the concert, which was a return to the festive side of the Bolivarian Revolution. Three bands played: The Whalers (of the Marley family line fame), Molotov (from Mexico), and Ska-P (from Spain). The weather behaved, the beer was sold at inflated prices, and the crowd was wonderful and full of life even as my crew and I snuck out around 2:30 in the morning.

A common theme throughout the evening was something on the order of ‘fuck imperialism,’ and my Venezuelan friends had ample opportunity to point at me and laugh, token gringo that I was and am. Ska-P, whose arrival in Caracas was widely anticipated and who as a band have been outspoken supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution, had one particular performance in which a band member dressed as Uncle Sam on stilts, wielding a giant scythe and threatening the crowd.

All of this awareness, this intense anti-imperialism, and the condemnation of Yankees, and I have never been maltreated in Venezuela (with the exception of a bureaucrat where I worked last year, and that had more to do with her petty tyrannical nature than with my place of origin). That is to say, there has always been, in my experience, a line dividing the US foreign policy machine and individual citizens. I’m not always sure this is a good thing. On the one hand, making links among people without the abstractions of states and ruling classes is a good thing, to be encouraged and fostered. On the other, it aids and perhaps even deepens the ‘not my president’ logic of detached and sarcastic inaction that has festered in the US until this most recent election cycle.

In a parallel between the United States and Venezuela, youth and traditionally underrepresented demographics played key roles in the rejection of a broken system. In the US, youth and people of color mobilized as never seen before to elect Barack Obama (…he only he were the socialist-terrorist-black power radical the Republicans made him out to be!!!). In Venezuela, it has been radical youth and the country’s historically marginalized poor majority that has pressed the Bolivarian Revolution forward. In both cases as well, it is precisely these mobilized blocs that hold the future. When Barack Obama inevitably makes the rightward shift that is de rigueur in US politics, the question will be whether or not the millions who mobilized for ‘change’ will be able maintain their momentum in spite of the dear leader. In Venezuela’s case, it is precisely these blocs who have the power to reverse the gains made by the endogenous right in the past year, and to deepen the revolution.

Friday, November 14, 2008

(translation) Opposition Mayoral Candidate for Valencia Detained on Drug Trafficking Charges

Prensa Web YVKE (Patricia Rivas)
Viernes, 14 de Nov de 2008. 2:59 pm

Abdala Makled, candidate for mayor of Valencia (Carabobo State), was arrested today for alleged narcotrafficking. The businessman was arrested in a hacienda he owned, where aircraft and a clandestine airstrip were also discovered, which is suspected to have been the origin of nearly 400 kilos of cocaine intercepted by authorities this morning at El Rosario, a property belonging to the candidate’s brother Walid Makled, who was also arrested.
Minister of Popular Power for Interior Relations and Justice, Tarek El Aissami, confirmed on Friday in an interview with the VTV program ‘La Noticia,’ that there had been a raid on the Haciend El Rosaria, in the municipality of Libertador, where Abdala Makled, mayoral candidate in Valencia and a strong collaborator of governor Acosta Carlez, was arrested. Makled’s brother, Betsi, was also detained, as were three functionaries of the Carabobo Regional Police found guarding the hacienda.

The operation against this narcotrafficking nework that today captured 392 kilos of what is assumed to be cocaine, has so far resulted in 13 detentions. The minister did not rule out that the raid could result in new arrest orders considering the discovery of a clandestine airstrip, planes, fuel and signal lights, which the alleged narcotraffickers appeared to be readying to use to transport the drugs.

(translation) Congressional Finance Commission Summons Manuel Rosales

***a few interesting things here: first of all, Manuel Rosales, leader of the opposition party ‘Un Nuevo Tiempo’ and opposition candidate for president in 2006, has long been accused by the government of having ties to kidnapping rings, drug producers and distributors and right-wing Colombian paramilitary organizations – not that this is an exhaustive nor mutually exclusive list. Zulia is Venezuela’s westernmost state, and it shares a long, rather porous border with Colombia. Colombia is along with Peru the chief ally of the United States in the region, and its peasant-insurgent-trade unionist-killing president Álvaro Uribe and Chávez have at times been rather intense enemies. In 2004 and 2007 the Venezuelan military has discovered and detained members of Colombian paramilitary groups around Caracas – who in one case were located on the property of outspoken anti-Chavista Robert Alonso (brother of actress María Conchita Alonso, who is also a virulent US-based anti-Chavista). Given that Colombian foreign policy vis-à-vis Venezuela is by and large written by the US state department, and given Rosales’ frequent trips to Washington D.C., he has perhaps become a legitimate target of government suspicion.
So, he’s under investigation by the National Assembly. Will he show up? Nope, no he didn’t (http://www.minuto59.com/politica/manuel-rosales-no-responde-a-la-citacion-a-la-asamblea-nacional/ ). As a result, the president of the commission has announced Rosales will be summoned a second time, but after the elections to be held November 23 (!!! Obviously, this is an iron-fisted dictatorship that brooks no insubordination!!!).

The other thing…Rosales is currently the governor of Zulia. Not bad. You done good, son. Then he got smashed in the 2006 presidential election (drawing just under 37% of the vote to Chávez’s nearly 63%). Too bad, so sorry. So now what? Running for mayor of the city you ran BEFORE becoming governor (from 1996-2000)? In most circles, that'd be a bit of a disappointment. In Venezuela, however, it points to the tenaciousness (ineffective as it may be) of the opposition – on which I will write in a few moments.

The article:

[Staff. Úlitmas Noticias 14 November 2008, pg. 17]

Caracas—The president of the National Assembly’s finance commission, Julio Moreno, issued a summons yesterday for the testimony of Zulia’s governor Manuel Rosales.

The summons obliges the participation of Rosales regarding: alleged corruption in the Zulia lottery and in the drawing of contracts for the lottery; the allegation made by a deputy concerning the donation and then sale of a car to a regional police functionary with ties to the governor.

Moreno indicated that he hoped that [Rosales], who is currently also a candidate for mayor of Maracaibo [capital of Zulia state] will assist the commission and give pertinent explanations, and did not rule out the possibility of Rosales’ testimony being made public.

[Moreno] said the commission had followed all the requirements for notifying Rosales of the subpoena. “The commission obeyed with what was established in the Law of Testimony, 72 hours he was sent a request via fax, and carried out the logistical support of a security corps to notify the governor of the proceedings.”

[Moreno] noted that to this point there has been no confirmation of attendance from the governor, but that the date of the hearing will be on the morning of 14 November.

A few musings on Coffee and Endogenous Development…

Last I was here, there were periodic shortages of basic foodstuffs: cooking oil, black beans, beef, milk – items considered integral to the Venezuelan diet. The reasons for these shortages were more often than not a convergence of two factors. First, the government had essentially followed policies increasing the purchasing power of the majority of Venezuelans. As a result, folks were buying more of the ‘cesta básica’ than before: supply didn’t rise apace with increased demand.

The opposition, of course, tried to blame this on government mismanagement, corruption, and the inherent evils associated with centralized or planned economies. They argued that the government simply could not provide for the citizenry better than the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.

Secondly, there was an active campaign on the part of importers and producer cartels to ‘prove’ this criticism of the opposition by holding back their distribution of basic items (so much for the invisible hand!). This is why, of course, one could find ostensibly ‘scarce’ items in restaurants and cafés. The government responded to this tactic with denunciations and attempts to procure the items through alternative means – their effective position being the second strategy disproved the opposition’s criticisms and put in stark relief the need NOT to ‘trust’ the market to provide.

This time around, the absentee necessity is coffee. I have been to three markets in the past 2 days, no coffee to be found. Well…that is an exaggeration. There was coffee, but it was decafinated and/or instant. (And any seasoned gringo wanderer knows these are NOT viable alternatives. More importantly, these items are much more expensive than regular, good old fashioned coffee for Venezuelans). Yet, my local café has plenty to be consumed in the ubiquitous little plastic Dixie cups of the average Venezuelan coffee connoisseur – but again this is option is more expensive than making your wakey-uppy at home.

The numbers I was able to dig up show that coffee production (in terms of export production) for the period 2001-2005 spiked in 2002-3, and has since declined by nearly US$ 13 million. According to the US state department in their 2008 backgrounder on Venezuela, agricultural production only makes up 4% of GDP (the petroleum industry, in contrast, makes up 28%). The irony, perhaps, is that prior to the discovery and industrialization of oil after 1914, Venezuela was a largely agricultural economy, exporting cacao and coffee to Europe and the United States. In fiscal year 1897-1898, coffee made up 83% of Venezuela’s exports. This figure declined by 1908-1909 to 48.4% due to a general decline in prices felt throughout the region. This decline in coffee’s dominance in the Venezuelan economy intensified with the country’s increased dependence on oil. As oil came to dominate, so too did the ‘Dutch Disease’ (the tendency of governments in petrol-exporting countries to neglect all but completely all other sectors of the economy, resulting in the dominance of the import economy in the provision of basic products, foodstuffs and etc). As a result, Venezuela regularly imports on average 2/3 of its food (more on bad weeks).

This has of course been a concern of the government, who has tried to balance the needs of increasing the quality of life for the majority of Venezuelans (through what I describe as a democratization of consumption) while pursuing food sovereignty. The project, described here in slogans and banners as ‘endogenous development’ comes in fits and starts, as the government has privileged to this point communal and social entrepreneurship – an uncertain proposition without a real map or model to follow. As recently as two days ago, Chávez acknowledged that a reduction in global oil prices could negatively impact Venezuela. However, in a speech broadcast nationally last night in ‘cadena nacional’ (meaning it was carried by all television networks) which took place in a recently finished fishing and processing cooperative, he argued that the socialized economy under construction here will allow Venezuela to weather the ever deepening crisis of the global economy.

This position will likely become an increasing necessity in the time to come, as increasing numbers of experts are diagnosing a global recession and the shift away from capitalism’s neoliberal phase. While speculation continues in the US as to the likelihood of a new (or green?) new deal, Venezuela persists in its pursuit of new modes of production, though it must be admitted that these have by and large been facilitated by its status as a major oil producer. If the Bolivarian Revolution is to be successful – and its protagonists are quite aware of this – it must deepen the development of non-capitalist modes of production and its pursuit of food sovereignty and continue the forging of regional and global trade coalitions based on solidarity and justice rather than trickle-down ‘development.’

In other words, the moderating strategy of the ‘endogenous right’ is precisely the wrong medicine for the present. In their calls to forge partnerships with the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ and to slow the pace of nationalization in order to make Venezuela less of a ‘risk’ for investors, they are effectively asking the country to reattach itself to the very Titanic from which the Bolivarians have fought so hard to escape. De-linking has never been more important.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

(translation) The Chaos of Downtown Caracas has moved to Catia

First of the promised translations...already since returning I have noticed a discursive shift vis-á-vis the informal economy -- which likely outstrips the 'formal' one here -- in Caracas. Now dubbed the 'popular economy,' the mayor of Libertador, Freddy Bernal, has been spearheading projects to relocate informal workers (who clog many of the capital's thoroughfares, are often associated with petty crime, and who -- perhaps more importantly, are themselves the victims of extortion, insecurity and precariousness) to locations where services, amenities, and security are available. There have been, however and of course, been bumps in the road, as the following translation suggests.
A deeper question worth pondering of course is how to categorize the 'informal sector' or the 'popular economy' (whichever you prefer) vis-a-vis socialism in the 21st century. Do they represent the petty bourgeoisie (a social bloc that Chávez yesterday lambasted as inherently counter-revolutionary)? Are they simply victims of decades of petrol-driven maldevelopment? Are they entrepreneurs? Opportunists? Revolutionaries? While the Buhoneros clearly by and large come from the social bloc that has been the base of Chávez's support, the question remains -- to paraphrase Lenin -- whether their consciousness is fundamentally socialist, or fundamentally bourgeois.
Anyway, the article:

Fereira, Lorena (2008). Últimas Noticias 13 November, pg. 3

Caracas--The number of informal merchants that have taken up residence on Catia Boulevard has increased significantly in the last two months.
“Since the beginning of October, many aisles are full of people displaced from the city center who have become tired of waiting for their relocation and have decided to look for a small hole in the avenue [to reopen their businesses],” according to one informal worker.

Two months ago there were a few vacant stalls [in the area], but now they are full of occupants and merchandise. Apparently, they spaces were rented by informal merchants that left the city center.

December’s approach has increased the number of informal workers posted in the entrances and exits of the metro. One can see fruit vendors, telephone stalls, food sellers, and even Christmas items that are offered without any sort of control in the area.

Pedestrians are the only ones who complain. They note that, in an election season, “the informal merchants [make up the numbers necessary] to win, and no authority will threaten them for fear of losing votes.”

One group of informal merchants said that in the meetings they have had with government officials, they have been told that in January they will be able to leave their current places of business. “We want to leave here, but also that we can be put in dignified markets without the delay that has occurred with [Chavista mayor of the Libertador parish] Freddy Bernal.”

With the exodus of informal merchants from the center of the city, Catia has turned into a giant garbage heap. The boulevard has turned into giant difficulty, and what is more, full of sewage, since most of the drains are so full that the rain water has no where to go.

This situation caused traffic to come to a standstill in front of the Plaza Sucre metro station, where a full drain left a tremendous amount of water in the street.
Another grave problem is noise pollution, that has tormented those living in the area. This is because sellers of pirated CDs play their equipment at maximum volume. These locations are also favorites for pickpockets, who use the confusion caused by the loud music to surprise their victims.

Insecurity continues, despite the presence of members of the National Guard in plaza Pérez Bonalde. “The boulevard is very big, and they cannot cover the entire area,” commented one worker.

It is estimated that there are currently 3,500 informal merchants around Catia boulevard. Last year, the figure was around 3,000, according to Fundacaracas [an office of the mayor of Caracas concerned with monitoring and executing infrastructure and service projects]. The neighbors [in Catia] argue that the mayor of Libertador parish moved the problem of the informal economy from the center to this sector. “There was no planning, and the issue simply slipped through their hands,” commented a businessman who wished to remain anonymous.

Decree: In January of this year, the mayor of Libertador, Freddy Bernal, dislocated informal workers from the central zone and signed a decree prohibiting them from setting up their shops on Baralt, San Martín, Sucre de Catia, la Candelaria avenues as well as Sabana Grande boulevard. He did the same for Francisco Solano Lópe and la Casanova avenues.
The decree provided that, once finalized, the mayor would return to issue a new decree to provide permanence for those who make their livings in the informal economy.

HA! if only...


Caracas, a city on wheels...

This is only my second full day back in the Bolivarian Republic, but I am amazed at my ability to forget just how bloody motorized this city is. It seems like everyone is driving, all the time, and the incredible and inevitable traffic jam forms something of a beehive in the streets, with motorcycle messengers (not to mention the 'mototaxis' -- who, for a small fee will perch you on the back of a dirt bike and give you a new appreciation to life) darting through what passes for lanes. On the freeways, informal sellers walk between the cars with food, coffee, razors and just about any other random bullshit you could imagine.
I love this city, and always will, but the idea of riding my bike here gives me tremors -- unforgiving roads, air you can see and taste, mototaxis...

Interestingly enough, opposition candidates in the east of the city (a stronghold of the upper classes and Anti-Chavistas) are actually campaigning on this, with one poster I saw yesterday declaring "you have the right to cross the street without having to hurry and without fear." These sorts of "quality of life" issues seem to be defining much of the campaign, and observers on the right and left both domestically and internationally have observed that insecurity and crime top the list of complaints all Venezuelans have against the government.

The difference, of course, lies in precisely how they plan to deal with it. A non-Caracas example can be seen in the campaign for mayor of Valencia (Venezuela's third largest city).

The opposition candidate, Miguel Cocchiola, is running on his experience as a businessperson, arguing that "Valencia needs a manager." He is arguing for increased motorized and foot police patrols to cut down on crime as well as more effective and efficient collection of garbage and recycling. Paradoxically, he also avers that his mayorship will integrate the poorer parts of the city in the south with the more affluent parishes, with the catchy if somewhat meaningless 'we don't want a Berlin wall [between the parts of our city]." How, exactly, criminalizing the south will do this, he leaves to question.

PSUVista candidate Edgardo Parra for his part, is arguing that each communal council should "promote a committee for integral security, which will build a social intelligence network in each community, and then we can create communal police forces...[that can] coordinate with the metropolitan police." Parra is, in other words, campaigning on the notion that the communities most impacted by crime should organize to solve the problems they face.

On a completely different note, given the insane rains that take up a decent part of the day this time of year, I'm going to try to start translating newspaper articles and posting them to fill my time. I'll try to also keep up the analytical posts as well as the anecdotal ones, but we'll see.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Historical Materialism: Done.

Just getting done with the Historical Materialism conference in London, and then I'm off to Caracas (tomorrow morning...)
A few folks asked me to post the paper I gave, so...

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and the Post (neo)Liberal State

Prepared for Historical Materialism
7-9 November, 2008

There is an increasing though rather unfinished literature in social science and area studies circles on so called ‘post-liberal regimes.’ Writing in this vein runs the gamut from the pejorative – as with Larry Diamond’s (Diamond, 2002) notion of ‘pseudo-democratic,’ ‘electoral authoritarian’ or otherwise hybrid regimes that fail to live up to the criteria of good governance established in the United States and most of Europe – to the speculative and hopeful – in the analytical position outlined by Benjamin Arditi (Arditi, 2003). Both perspectives note the ways in which the positions and institutions of modern liberalism – as a political praxis dominant in the west based at a minimum on a strong sense of individualism, formal-legal equality, limited government, free markets, and religious and ideological tolerance – are seemingly on the wane or losing their hegemonic position in the political imaginary.
Better, both of these poles characterize what is consistent throughout the literature on post-liberalism, though from different political positions. That is to say, the era of the ideological emphasis of freedom first with unfettered transnational capital, and only then with western style formal political equalities (to say nothing of substantive, abilities-needs fairness or justice) – has ended or as at the very least entering a major crisis. While this may or may not signal the end of ‘liberalism’ as a legitimating discourse entwined with the modern state and capital, neoliberalism has certainly sustained a substantial blow to its short and medium term credibility.
However, any triumphalism in the face of the contemporary crisis of global capitalism, its deployment of the modern state form and the obfuscatory discourses of liberalism would be well served to recall C.B. Macpherson’s (Macpherson, 1965) observation that states were states before they were liberal, liberal before they were democratic, and finally that liberalism itself was liberal before it was democratic. The collapsing of these categories which has been the steady work of the 20th century’s long project of making the world safe again for capitalism may be less possible today than in 1994, but this does not mean the critical work of highlighting the contradictions within these and emerging forms of class domination are no longer needed. Quite the contrary. Nowhere is this more pressing than in the consideration of the state form and its relation to a potentially reinvented class struggle. This is my present task.
My wager in this paper is that the Bolivarian Revolution is in the process of building a new type of state power in Venezuela. The at times inconsistent and at present precarious nature of this project is in part due to the state culture and the form of capitalism developed by the previous, Fourth, Republic. In large part, this history helps explain the centrality of the state in the pursuit of 21st century socialism. However, the extent to which this new role for the state is feasible is directly contingent upon the ability of the Bolivarians to resist the entropy and alienation of the modern state form. That is to say, the ability of the Bolivarian Revolution to create a new form of state power – one that emerges from the post-liberal moment de-linked from the requirements and domination of modern capitalism – is directly tied to its ability to move beyond the very notion of the state itself.
The revolutionary process in Venezuela has decidedly yet to take the form of a frontal assault on the most sacred institutions of liberal capitalism, but has rather of necessity been much more tentative and ad hoc than definitive; more additive than destructive. Far from exiling or attacking core liberal values like private property and individual liberty, the Venezuelan government has for at least the last 5 years attempted to augment such conventions. The chief means through which this has taken place has been through massive increases in social spending – effecting a partial democratization of consumption rather than fomenting a social revolution. While these measures are in no doubt long overdue, their revolutionary importance is decidedly lesser than the creation of parallel institutions such as the consejos comunales (neighborhood based legislative, cultural and budgetary bodies), and the misiones sociales (an armada of educational, nutritional, health, collective-entrepreneurial and cultural projects).
The original aims of the misiones and the consejos was one of building direct democracy, decentralizing political power and the construction of a more fair economy. However, with the steady radicalization of the Chávez government – spurred on by what Gregory Wilpert describes as an opposition that was preemptively reactionary (Wilpert, 2007) – these parallel institutions were increasingly seen as capable of replacing the traditional and alienating bodies of liberal democracy. This radicalizing trend, and the potential for building a revolutionary counterpower within the revolution has been put into question in the aftermath of the failed Constitutional Reform of December 2007.
Within Chavista ranks a so-called ‘endogenous right’ made up of bureaucrats and largely middle-class supporters of the government has been able to expand its position, arguing for a slower, more defensive and conservative pace to the Revolution. This moment, or so their logic goes, is one in which the government needs to make friends amongst the upper and middle classes, to make gestures toward the progressive bourgeoisie, to forge public-private partnerships and work towards the integration of the opposition into the government. These conservative elements by and large see the consejos and the misiones as supplements to the pre-existing order – something akin to welfare programs designed to catch those who have ‘fallen through the cracks’ of contemporary society (Ellner, 2008). In other words, their vision of socialism for the 21st century is rather closer to European social democracy than to communism of the Soviet or Cuban varieties.
At the same time, radical elements in the base have argued in essence that the best defense is a good offense. They rightly locate the failure of the 2007 reforma not in the opposition’s ability to convert the government’s supporters but rather in the failure of the Chavistas to mobilize their own base. More fundamentally, they point to a faltering in the parallel institutions such as misión ribas and misión barrio adentro as key reasons why Venezuelans did not turn out in the same numbers for the reforma as they did for the re-election of Chávez merely a year earlier. Their strategic position is in essence rather similar to that of the Lenin of Dual Power (as George Ciccariello-Maher has argued in the pages of the Monthly Review), that the state is necessary only insofar as it can be used to attack the enemies of the revolution but that it cannot and should not be mistaken for the substance and ultimate aim of the revolution. Rather that the state must be ultimately overtaken by the armed and organized force of the revolutionary proletariat. Even though both wings of the Bolivarian Revolution have been impeccably democratic – in Chávez’s words, “peaceful, but armed” – this bloc is much less accomodationist than the endogenous right and much more skeptical of the existing state structure. As such, they have envisioned the parallel institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution as tools to create political, social and economic powers capable of overcoming the inherently corrupt institutions of bourgeois liberal democracy (Ciccariello-Maher, 2007).
This particular task of the radicals is made all the more difficult given the nature of the Venezuelan state and its relation to the economic life of that nation. The extent of this difficulty defies a quick simplifying gloss. It entails a history spanning the long marches of Simón Bolívar’s liberating armies in the early 19th century to the bloody Caracazo uprising against the neoliberal reforms of president Carlos Andrés Peréz and the collapse of the Venezuelan political establishment in and after 1989. I will do my best to highlight a few key moments in this history in the hopes of better contextualizing my concluding remarks on the transformation of the state in the Bolivarian Revolution.
The centralization of military, economic and political power in Venezuela truly came to its maturity during the Vicente Gómez years (1909-1935), a process which was greatly expedited with the discovery and state control of access to oil starting in 1914. Having dispossessed the caudillos both militarily and politically, Vicente Gómez exercised complete control over oil concessions, removing their economic power as well. It was also in this moment that the bases of power and the shape of Venezuelan society shifted from the countryside to the cities, and the beginning of a distinctly Venezuelan model of capitalism and the modern state form.
The modern sovereign state emerged at the same time as did Venezuela’s capitalist economy – it was not a holdover from an absolutist ancien régime but rather in many ways its commencement. This economy, from the beginning, was based not on the capture of labor power, but rather on the capture of oil rents levied upon foreign petrol companies, a process which was monopolized by the state. It is thus rather difficult to locate sociologically something on the order of a distinct ‘ruling class’ that could wield state power in any sort of ‘instrumental’ fashion in that the state itself was the owner of the ‘means of production.’
Thus against traditional liberal and Marxist historiography of the modern state and capitalism which rely heavily on the emergence and consolidation of an indigenous bourgeoisie in the interstices of the absolutist state and the eventual emergence of a disciplined if oppressed working class (Koselleck, 1988; Marx, 1978), the primary indicator of social power in 20th century Venezuela was political rather than propertied in nature (Coronil, 1997; Hein, 1980). At precisely the moment in which a central state emerged which was strong enough to protect the country’s fledgling industries, Venezuela threw itself headlong into oil production just in time for the Second World War. Subsequent intensification of the petrol industry further weakened what few autonomous social and economic forces remained, strengthening the power of the central state as it brokered the contracts of the foreign-dominated extraction process. Thus something of ‘the Dutch Disease’ avant la lettre took hold in Venezuela for political as well as economic reasons. As a domestic strategy of control it endured the pacted transition to democracy in 1958, just as the consequences of uneven internal economic development persist for the population to this day.
This enduring trait of Venezuelan political economy is worth drawing out in more detail, as it is key to any attempt to think the state-form of the Bolivarian Revolution. While the transition to democracy energized and expanded its atrophied and exiled ‘civil society,’ it did little to counter what Fernando Coronil (Coronil, 1997) has described as the ‘magical’ or ‘shamanistic’ nature of the Venezuelan state. In Coronil’s estimation, this phenomenon, specific to the expanded opportunities afforded by oil wealth, was ‘magical’ in that the state literally transformed ‘nature’ (his word) into the physical and material traits of an imagined –and deeply desired – modernity. This persistent trait of Venezuelan political economy was intensified during the dictatorship years, as General Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1948/52-1958) adopted policies of intense infrastructure development – building highways, universities and housing on a scale never before seen in the country – and which arguably has lasted until the present government’s attempts to build collective and communal forms of property and industry. (Anecdotally, “Sembrar el petroleo” Arturo Úslar Pietri, Diario Ahora 1936…lack of tax collection…).
With democratization came a deepening of the Venezuelan form of the ‘Dutch disease,’ as the parties which dominated the structurally exclusionary democratic system known as the ‘puntofijo pact’ tightly controlled unions and social organizations (García-Guadilla, 2007) and the dominance of the oil sector led to consistent annual declines in domestic industrial and agricultural productivity (Karl, 1997). There was thus little space for autonomous power to be built against either the state or the ruling class by the bourgeoisie. Even less so was there much hope for economic counter-systemic organization amongst workers outside of state run industries (oil, aluminum, and steel) with the explosion of the informal sector beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present (Orlando, 2001). The global boom in oil prices around that time contributed to a spike in urbanization without industrialization. Unable to compete with subsidized imports, the inhabitants of the Venezuelan countryside flocked to a few key cities in order to find employment in the interstices and service economies around the oil sector. By 1992 informality so dominated employment and housing in Caracas that, Aristóbolo Istúriz, then the recently elected mayor lamented that his administration had no clue how many people lived in the constantly growing city, let alone how to provide them with basic services (Harnecker, 2005). The deepening of the social crises surrounding consecutive rounds of structural adjustments in 1989 did little to improve this situation, though they did hasten the collapse of the fourth republic, by which time the Venezuelan state could be considered to have transitioned from a liberal or quasi-liberal state to a neoliberal one.
In 1871, writing on the Paris Commune, Marx warned that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (pg. 629) a caution that has dominated subsequent Marxist thought on the role of the state in revolutionary transformation. It is precisely this warning which inspired the Leninist concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and of ‘dual power,’ as well as the often (incorrectly) opposed Gramscian formulations of hegemony and War of Position. The state, they argued, was a powerful element of class warfare, either as the instrument of the ruling class (Lenin) or as a complex series of relationships capable of either crushing or neutralizing class struggle (Gramsci). In either case, the present liberal-bourgeois state would have to be done away with in the pursuit of socialism, and the party – in different ways – was precisely the body to take on this historical task.
This approach to the state was by and large eclipsed by the post-Soviet renaissance of ‘radical democracy,’ a slogan that often took the place of Socialism, Marxism or communism in the imaginaries of university leftists and the so-called ‘anticapitalist globalization movements.’ Within this line of thought, the state is often seen as a highly likely if not inevitable harbinger of Stalinist statism. The state is thus for this tendency uniquely a power-over, antithetical to the spirit of anticapitalism. More troublingly, in its abandonment, the net result of the actions of these tendencies often result in little more than appeals for a kinder, gentler, perhaps more inclusive capitalism. The principle, then, of radical democracy when delinked from the pursuit of state power (pursuit as in the Leninist or Gramscian sense of ending the liberal bourgeois model of political power) comes down to little more than a democratization of consumption or the naïve faith that the principles of liberalism and the promise of the egalitarian, democratic state are sound if ill executed. If anything, current events have eroded this position’s theoretical coherence, if not torn it completely asunder.
If the Bolivarian Revolution is to be successful, it must capitalize on the uncertainty of this post (neo)liberal moment and end this substitution of radical democracy for the communist imperative that the liberal state is a lie, and must therefore go. It is, however, a rather difficult task in that the historical identification of the Venezuelan state with capital favors a political approach in the Poulantizian sense of the state as a field ‘traversed’ by struggle (Poulantzas, 2008 pg. 367). The problem is deepened still more given the persevering political and economic consequences of the ‘Dutch Disease.’ A historically weak working class, the absence of a peasantry and the ubiquity of the informal economy all make a rallying organizational praxis along the lines of ‘all power to the soviets’ something of a ridiculous proposition. In its place – and this has been the strategy of the radical base of Chavismo against the endogenous right – the strategy must be ‘all power to the communal councils,’ locating the terrain of the struggle against state domination and capitalist exploitation in the social.
In order to avoid the theoretical and strategic circle such a series produces, there is little other choice than to rely on the state to engender and protect the antagonistic force of the poor. And in this light, despite the present uncertainty and its rather uneven progress, Venezuela should be seen as building just such a state. It has, however, been able to do so for the past 5 years almost in spite of itself, given the tragicomic ineptitude of the opposition which all but gave Chavistas not only state power, but hegemony. The upcoming elections of 23 November put this luxury in question. While an opposition rout is highly unlikely, the reemergence of opposition lawmakers would strengthen the hand of the endogenous right’s calls for moderation and a slowing of the pace of the Bolivarian Revolution. In other words, the capacity of the hard line Chavista project of ending the substitution of radical democracy and the democratization of consumption for social revolution remains suspended in the balance. Such is the uncertainty of the post (neo)liberal constellation, the situation we now face in Venezuela and throughout the world and where, I unfortunately, must conclude.

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Coronil, F. (1997). The magical state : nature, money, and modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Harnecker, M. (2005). Haciendo Camino al Andar. Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores Latinoamerican CA.
Hein, W. (1980). Oil and the Venezuelan State. In P. Nore & T. Turner (Eds.), Oil and Class Struggle (pp. 224-251). London: Zed Books.
Karl, T. L. (1997). The paradox of plenty : oil booms and petro-states. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Koselleck, R. (1988). Critique and crisis : enlightenment and the pathogenesis of modern society (1st MIT Press ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Macpherson, C. (1965). Post-Liberal Democracy? New Left Review, 1(33), 3-16.
Marx, K. (1978). The Civil War in France. In R. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Ed. (pp. 618-652). New York: Norton Publishers.
Orlando, M. B. (2001). The Informal Sector in Venezuela: Catalyst or Hindrance for Poverty Reduction? Paper presented at the Asociación Civil para la Promoción de Esutios Sociales. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
Thomas, P. (1994). Alien Politics: Marxist State Theory Retrieved. New York: Routledge.
Wilpert, G. (2007). Changing Venezuela by taking power : the history and policies of the Chavez government. London ; New York: Verso.