Sunday, May 31, 2009

Update: The Great No-Show


Mario Vargas Llosa, et. al. copped out, refusing to attend a debate this morning on President Chávez's weekly television show, Aló Presidente.

I posted the initial story a few days ago and immediately started looking for more details, hoping to write a longer analysis after the event. Chávez had initially proposed to host a debate between "intellectuals who support capitalism, and intellectuals who support socialism," given the fact that two high-profile conferences (representing each tendancy) were taking place that week in Caracas.

Mario Vargas Llosa, world renowned author of the 'boom' generation and outspoken champion of neoliberalism and the Peruvian aristocracy, was quickly identified as the most prominent representative of the right's team.

However, immediately after accepting the invite, Vargas Llosa started adding on conditions, eventually demanding that he and Chávez debate personally rather than the panel-style discussion the Venezuelan president had initially proposed to moderate. In the end, the Peruvian and his cohort simply refused to attend.

This is a shame, but rather indicative of the Venezuelan right's inability to actually battle Chávez on issues and ideas. The reason the opposition, as I have argued numerous times in this blog, have failed to make inroads against the consolidation of Bolivarian hegemony has been, quite simply, that they have absolutely no vision for where to take Venezuela, and no legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of the Venezuelan population.

The debate that wasn't also illuminates another misrepresentation of the Venezuelan right. That is, far from the stale slogans they have cut-and-pasted from their National Endowment for Democracy™ coloring books onto webpages and picket signs, Chávez's willingness to host such a debate seriously undermines opposition claims that 'freedom of expression' is being curtailed in Venezuela.

This has happened before. The scenario goes:
1. the opposition cries 'censorship,' 'there is no free speech in Venezuela';
2. the government promises them (and in some cases, has given them) the ability to state their case ON NATIONAL TELEVISION AND RADIO in cadena nacional, meaning by law every broadcaster must put them on the air, live;
3. the government, however, adds the condition that rather than an infomercial, this will be a debate. That is to say, the opposition will get to say their piece, but they have to defend their position;
4. the opposition runs away;
5. Simon Romero at the New York Times reports the following day that Chávez is opening up a gulag somewhere in the Llanos where kittens are ground up into nuclear fissile material that he intends to use in a sneak attack on Israel.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Seriously, this is going to be bigger than Tyson v. Holyfield! Set your TiVo! (geez, I wish I had a TV)

Chávez v. Vargas Llosa,
this could go more than 12 rounds.
Seriously, I've seen Chávez talk FOR HOURS

The Bolivarian News Agency is reporting today that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is challenging “rightwing intellectuals” to a debate that will take place on his weekly television program ‘Aló Presidente’ this Sunday. Enrique Krauze, Mario Vargas Llosa (see this, for example) and Jorge Castañeda – all noted international critics of Chávez – have been in Caracas at a conference organized by Cedice (a rightwing Venezuelan think-tank).

The government has also been holding its own concurrent conference, this one organized around the theme of the current global crisis in the capitalist world system.

Last Thursday, Chávez issued his challenge, hoping to commemorate the 10th anniversary of ‘Aló Presidente’ with a vigorous debate on the status of the Bolivarian Revolution. Today the rightwing trio agreed, stipulating the need for ‘clear rules’ and that they would be debating the president alone.

Said Chávez, “I’ll debate with whoever wants to debate me. At 11 in the morning I’ll be waiting, and won’t avoid any topic. Any theme is valid, and if they want, we can make every radio and television in the nation broadcast it.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Chavista Student Leader's Murder and (more) Lies of the Venezuelan Opposition

The Bolivarian News Agency report today on the JPSUV and violence against the student movement (the youth wing of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for its initials in Spanish) was overshadowed by a predawn earthquake near the capital that measured 5.4 on the Richter Scale (no injuries were reported). All the same, this was a key story, one which illuminates both the intensity of mobilization in Venezuela today and the paucity of the opposition’s attempt to paint themselves as victims of a dictatorship.

The Story

Today, Luis Villalta, speaking on behalf of the JPSUV, read a prepared statement exhorting the Venezuelan Attorney General’s office to investigate the death of Yuban Ortega, a student militant from the Andean state of Mérida. Ortega died last Thursday at the hands of officers from the regional police corps.

Today, a series of political and cultural actions are taking place throughout Venezuelan cities and campuses, in memory of Ortega and against the culture of impunity that Villalta described as reminiscent of the (pre-Bolivarian Revolution) Fourth Republic. “We are standing and fighting,” the JPSUV announced, adding “It seems that the bourgeois state has not died yet, and that its repressive arm is still trying to stop us.” The JPSUV statement also warned the ‘rectores golpistas’ (inelegantly translated: coup-monger university rectors) that the Bolivarian Revolution will not be stopped.

The Historical Context

All this may seem odd to those of us who only encounter Venezuela through mainstream US media sources. Here in the United States, we are presented with the picture of Venezuela as a country tottering on the edge of totalitarianism, in which a romantic and battered opposition struggles against an omnipresent megalomaniac and his armed thugs. In particular, since 2007’s non-renewal of the private television network RCTV’s broadcast concession, we have been presented from time to time with images of a ‘student movement’ bravely fighting for freedom of speech and against state repression.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, one of the chief complaints I have often heard voiced by Chavistas is that the government is far too lenient on the opposition. While radicals and moderate Chavistas alike are proud of the fact that the Bolivarian Process has been a rule-bound, democratic and open one, they are frustrated at how the opposition has been able to manipulate the rules in order to create instability and maintain their positions of economic and social privilege.

The university system is a key case in point. While in the 1960s and 1970s the Venezuelan public university system functioned as something of a progressive institution (perhaps most notably during the administration of Rafael Caldera, when military officers were trained at Venezuelan Universities rather than the US torture academy – at the time known as the ‘School of the Americas’ – in Ft. Benning, Georgia), with deepening recessions throughout the 1980s and 1990s they increasingly became the exclusive territory of the rich. This in large part is due to the increase in fees, the general economic downturn and the barrier put in place by entrance exams. These factors formed something of a crypto-class credentialing process: with the less money, the burden of travel costs to university and even nominal fees became harder to bear; rather than studying for college entry exams, poor students were required to seek employment, and so forth. As a result, during Venezuela's lost decades, the poor were increasingly denied access to higher education -- and the social mobility it entails.

With the gradual change in the class composition of the University, so too changed the activist orientation of University students. We often (falsely) assume campuses the world over to be hotbeds of radicalism and revolutionary thought. All too often, especially today, this is not the case, but is rather little more than an overly-romanticized memory of the rebellions of 1968.

Thus, while students of the Central University of Venezuela were key in the anti-neoliberal uprisings of 1989 known collectively either as the caracazo or sacudón, by the time of 2007’s campaign to reform the constitution there were sizable blocs of anti-Chavistas violently clashing with pro-government student groups. (Most notoriously misreported in the US was the incident in early November 2007 on the UCV campus in which a group of opposition student protesters surrounded and attempted to burn down a building in which pro-government students were holding a meeting. In the struggles that ensued, guns were drawn by both sides. However, in the US, coverage was almost universally spun along the lines of ‘pro-Chávez student thugs attack pro-democracy students’ – a blatant flipping of Venezuelan reality).

A further complication to the student question in Venezuela has to do with ‘university autonomy.’ Due in large part to a history of police and state repression against (at the time, radical and leftist) student organizations, Venezuela’s legal code prohibits members of the state’s security forces from entering university grounds, even though they are, technically, public institutions. This has allowed violent opposition student groups to use campuses as ‘home bases’ from which they can strike out against the police, resulting in many staged photos which are then distributed worldwide.

Secondly, this question of autonomy has allowed university administrators themselves to turn campuses into islands of opposition power. One of the most obvious and egregious examples came in 2007 when, during the RCTV affair, the rector of UCV canceled classes and encouraged students to take part in anti-government protests.

The government's response to this institutional situation has been to create a series of parallel educational institutions -- from the misiones bolivarianas to the Bolvarian University of Venezuela. Much like the related communal councils, the strategy of the government has here been additive in nature. That is to say, rather than a frontal assault on the existing public university system, dominated as it is by the opposition, the government is attempting to make them obsolete by creating alternatives which are more universally accessible.

The Stakes

Recent violent events in the student scene in Venezuela should be viewed against the backdrop of an upsurge in violence against labor organizers and attempts to establish worker control of factories. They should also be considered against the all but complete lack of state repression against opposition actors who openly and actively have been seeking to destabilize the country (opposition Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s inciting of a rally last Friday to clash with police being a very recent case in point). What we see, then, is the in part necessary balancing act the Venezuelan state has decided to attempt in order to de-escalate politics in the country and to forge something along the lines of a ‘social peace.’

These events also point to ridiculousness of claim that the Bolivarian Revolution is entering something along the lines of a totalitarian situation. Last November, the opposition gained important institutional positions of power, augmenting their former footholds in the Universities and private media (while the Bolivarian movement has gained key ground in television, the print and radio media, not to mention international and cable-access sources, remain solidly in the hands of the opposition). Rather than a monolithic state and ‘official’ party (the PSUV), contemporary Venezuelan politics are as ever fragmented and antagonistic, with the divisions within the larger Bolivarian movement just as stark as those between Chavistas and the opposition.

Furthermore, with the continued darkening of the economic skies, the Chávez government has fewer resources to spread around, which has already brought about a series of difficult decisions. While they have thus far pledged not to cut social spending, they have still yet to ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ as self-identification as a ‘revolution’ would seem to promise. The government’s first anti-crisis plan has met with a high degree of skepticism on the part of radical chavismo, who see the plan as a significant moderation of the revolutionary process. Some commentators even argue that the plan does more to shore up the national bourgeoisie than actually contribute to the construction of Socialism in Venezuela. Paraphrasing Marea Socialista, a radical current within the PSUV, the government seems to be missing a tremendous opportunity to ramp up the speed of change presented by the global restructuring of the capitalist system.

In other words, the government may indeed be trying to please too many people here – or maybe just the wrong ones.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Carter and Morales, Coca, Peanuts, and the Peacecorps...

(translation from Telesur) -- In La Paz, Ex-President of the United States and Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter accepted an invitation from Bolivian President Evo Morales to harvest coca leaves at the Bolivian President’s home in the Andean region of Chapare.

“I hope that on my next visit I can go to Chapare, where he [Morales] will take me to harvest coca leaves,” Carter said through an interpreter during a press conference with the Bolivian president after a private meeting in the Presidential Palace.

Morales, a former leader of coca farmers, made the first invitation among smiles and an announcement that he and Carter had a good meeting that also included Carter inviting Morales to harvest peanuts at his farm in Georgia.

“One time he invited me to visit his family and his home, to harvest peanuts on his land in Atlanta, so now I am inviting him to Chapare to harvest coca…the next time [he visits],” said Morales, without providing details when he would again visit the United states, which triggered laughter from Carter.

Morales also denied any intention of expelling the Peace Corps from Bolivia. While Bolivia, like Venezuela, has expelled other US agencies from operating within its national territory (most notoriously in the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration). In the case of the Peace Corps, however, Morales said that he welcomed any organization to Bolivia that had "social ends" and that did not seek to meddle in Bolivian affairs.

The question of the Peace Corps' status in Bolivia has been somewhat in question since February of 2008. At the time, it was revealed that the US Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, had requested that Fullbright Scholars and Peace Corps volunteers spy on Venezuelan and Cuban nationals working in Bolivia. Morales eventually expelled Philip Goldberg, the US Ambassador to Bolivia, in September of last year after he was caught consorting with violent separatist groups in the eastern department of Santa Cruz.

Venezuela expelled its ambassador in solidarity, at the time Chávez said at a rally, "Get out of here, bullshit yankees! We're a dignified people, We are the children of Bolívar, the children of Guaicaipuro, the children of Tupac Amarú, we are free...when there is a new government [in the United States] we will request a new ambassador."

Carter's meeting with Morales is the latest in a series of warming signs that relations between the United States and Latin American democracies. Carter's position today, which tacitly accepts the legitimacy of coca as a crop is significant step in the direction of normalization.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day 2009 -- Polarization on the day of the worker

May Day is traditionally the occasion for mass demonstrations, celebrations, marches and protests throughout much of the world. With the on-going reconfiguration of the global economic order and many central states using public funds to bailout financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail,’ the stakes and emotions around today’s international day of the worker are as high as ever.

Al-Jazeera reports that throughout the world, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the street, with significant clashes taking place between demonstrators and police in Germany, Turkey and Greece. In Moscow, many groups marched under the hammer and sickle, calling for a return to communism after the kleptocracy that has defined Russian political economy since the Yeltsin Years.

Venezuela has of course been no exception. The country that has for many reintroduced the question and reinvention of socialism has not been without May Day mobilizations, many of which exemplify the intense political and social divisions within the larger Bolivarian process.

Throughout the country, the Chávez government has sponsored a series of marches and rallies, highlighting the ways in which the still-developing Bolivarian Socialist model has been able to avoid some of the most injurious effects of the global recession through its flotilla of social programs and government-sponsored employment initiatives.

In Caracas (opposition) metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma encouraged a legal rally in a park in the capital to continue onward to the National Assembly, at which point white T-shirted youths clashed with a police cordon. (Authorities were concerned that the opposition rally would run into another sanctioned but pro-government rally. Given the intensely polarized nature of Venezuelan politics today, the government often tries to keep pro- and anti-government protesters separated in order to avoid repeats of, for example, violent clashes between students campaigning for and against the constitutional referendum in late 2007).

These clashes (still developing as I write) highlight the high-stakes politics and precedents of public rallies in Caracas and throughout Venezuela. In 2002, an opposition rally and march protesting the sacking of several PDVSA (the state oil company) officials was encouraged to extend their route to Miraflores, the presidential palace, in violation of their parade permits. In the (as it turns out, carefully orchestrated between the then Acción Democratica dominated official trade union, the private media, the national chamber of commerce – FEDECÁMERAS – and elements of the military high command) chaos that ensued, a crisis was precipitated that served as the justification of a military coup.

This strategy aimed at creating crises has become a stand-by for the Venezuelan opposition, and since 2007, a well-trained ‘student movement’ has often emerged as the vanguard of violent clashes against police and Chávez supporters. In one recent and illuminating example from the lead-up to the February 15th referendum on term limits for elected officials, anti-government students attempted to start a forest fire in El Ávila, the national park that borders the city of Caracas to the north.

These sorts of destabilizing tactics on the part of the Venezuelan opposition are intended perhaps more than anything for its own internal audience. By forcing the hand of the state to ‘repress’ them, they produce an image that gives them the moral righteousness of perceived victimhood. For most Venezuelans, however, their actions take on the appearance of the extremism and desperation of an upper class being dispossessed. The net result is thus the further entrenchment of the antagonism and polarization that defines Venezuelan politics.

If only…

However, it is also important to keep in mind that the Venezuelan opposition is a spent force, politically. Outside of the ranks of the upper and upper-middle class, they lack any sort of constituency, due in no small part to their utter lack of a coherent vision for how to take Venezuela forward. Much touted electoral victories in the local and regional elections of November 2008 were the result not of the opposition’s ability to convert Chavistas, but were caused rather by widespread discontent with some of the candidates presented by the PSUV (Juan Barreto, former mayor of the municipality of Caracas who is now under investigation for corruption, being a prime case in point).

The more interesting and important division in Venezuela, the one that will actually impact the future direction of the Bolivarian Revolution, is that within the ranks of Chavismo. This division, which I and many others have identified as between radicals at the base – who tend to be less accomodationist toward the opposition, leery of representative government, and less ambiguously in favor of socialism – and members of the ‘internal rightwing’ is playing out this May Day as well.

In Aragua, members of the National Workers’ Union (UNT) and the United, Revolutionary, Classist and Autonomist Movement (C-CURA) are holding a May Day march in the city of Maracay “independent of the bosses and the government.” The march, in addition to supporting worker-controlled factories and calling for a reassessment of the government’s recently announced anti-crisis plan (which they, as well as Marea Socialista, a radical current within the PSUV, contend is a Bolivarian version of a bailout for the wealthy), is being held in solidarity with public sector workers currently renegotiating their contracts.

The march is also intended to call attention to intensifying conflicts between workers and bosses in Venezuela, most specifically in this rally’s case the as-yet unsolved assassination of three labor organizers in late November of last year.

In their May Day statement, Marea Socialista argues that “this crisis is not just a crisis of the global capitalist system, it is also an enormous opportunity to push forward in the fight for the only alternative model to capitalism that we know, socialism.”

The continue that this, the third phase of the Bolivarian Revolution (the first being the period between the caracazo of 1989 and Chávez’s election in 1998, the second being the period between the ratification of the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the passing of the constitutional amendment abolishing term limits this past February) has still been one in which the oligarchy “continues to enjoy intolerable profits,” and that their fight, the fight for socialism is “class war,” or the still lacking consolidation of worker-control in production, the unity of unions in this struggle, and the overcoming of bureaucratic roadblocks on the path to Socialism.

There are then, two types of struggle in Venezuela today. The first is that of the opposition against the government, which is increasingly taking the path of the guarimba -- a series of violent protests orchestrated by the opposition in order to destabilize the state -- and almost always covered with a sympathetic eye by the media in the United States and Europe. The second is the struggle within the Bolivarian Revolution.

This second struggle, between radicals and the 'forces of order' within the state and the PSUV shows little sign of slowing down. Nor, given the electoral inroads made by the opposition in last November's elections and the intransigence of figures such as Ledezma, does the first. While in other circumstances economic policies of the government in response to the crisis (an increase in the added value tax, being the most contentious example) might threaten to further fragment the pro-government bloc -- numerous parties, PODEMOS being the most recent, have jumped from the government's coalition due to the personal ambitions of their leadership -- the spectacular actions of the opposition only serve to reinforce the need for unity within the Bolivarian Revolution.