Venezuela: What Now?

To most followers of Venezuelan politics, Chávez’s re-election on October 7th came as little or no surprise. He had sat comfortably in almost all polls for months, despite soaring inflation rates, national food shortages, frightening levels of crime and a rather secretive battle with cancer. True, his rival Capriles made impressive gains during his three month campaign: at around 9% behind the official state party PSUV, the centre-right coalition candidate came closest of anyone in 14 years to toppling the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. But a combination of charisma, youth, and optimism just wasn’t enough to secure“el flaco” first place.

The first question on many lips was “what went wrong?”. Few cried fraud (a new electronic voting system almost rules this out); even fewer noted the potentially justifiable argument that Capriles’s policy was, to put it bluntly, lacking policy. Somewhat more worryingly, many fingers pointed immediately at the “ignorance” of “the other side”. “I’m really scared of idiots, because there are a lot of them and they can chose a president” is a Facundo Cabral line that popped up on my Facebook newsfeed more than once. Others put over 8 million votes down to a collective desire for a new, state-subsidised fridge. Still others threw around accusations of free-loading, laziness and downright insanity that dictated the democratic choice of the majority.

Any suggestion that Chávez’s victory was pure and well deserved would be shortsighted, if not plainly mistaken. Complex and extensive judicial and constitutional changes made by the PSUV government since 1999 have rendered political proceedings murky: Chávez undoubtedly sits atop a pyramidical system that has all but squeezed out contributions from the opposition. But an insistence that 54.5% of voters ticked a box stating “I’M WITH STUPID” is problematic, to say the least. First, it displays the rather unattractive attitude that intelligence is what we acquire with a formal education at exclusive institutions. Indeed, one of Chávez’s achievements has been to challenge this belief through an installation of local education projects that have specifically targeted underprivileged areas. The aim of such “missions” consists in questioning the very nature of learning. Not all have been entirely successful, though many participants have been seen to graduate with restored levels of confidence and dignity.

Second, such divisive discourse mimics Chávez’s offensive rhetoric that critics are so quick to point out almost to the letter. Those who claim that states with an overall opposition majority are homes to more rational beings act little differently to a president who denounces his local opposers as“squalid” and international enemies “imperialist scum”. Sadly for Venezuela, the void that divides the higher and lower echelons of society is far from being bridged — surely those who consider themselves educated enough to make an informed and rational decision at the urns can sense the danger in sustaining such a polarising verbal attack against a massive and unknown other? To the vague disappointment of international press, there has been no sign of violence or civil strife following the announcement of Chávez’s win. Yet the feeling of anger and judgemental bitterness slewed from one almost-half to the other is near palpable within the online community; perhaps, the most imminently grave outcome of Sunday’s election.

Among the status updates, blog posts, tweets and Facebook notes that dominated my Internet browsing today, there was one that particularly caught my attention. A short, sensitive piece, written by a student I once taught, insisted that we leave pessimism to one side. To friends of the opposition, he advised: “Get over it. Everything will stay the same, period. Don’t be so dramatic, do yourself a favour, READ […]. Let’s turn the TV off for five days or so and live reality as is. Let’s see the good side of Chávez though it might be difficult […] and let’s advance with optimism.” To his chavista friends, he said: “Celebrate enough and then get over it, too. Everything will stay the same. […] Let’s not be blind, here there are good things but there are bad things too, really bad; if that wasn’t the case then 45% of people wouldn’t have voted against the president, they wouldn’t think that the problem was ‘socialism'”.

His balanced viewpoint was refreshing in such a stagnant atmosphere. His simple, understated point – that chavismo is far from perfect but it’s what the majority wants and that’s sort of how democracy works – has somehow been lost in the post-election furore. It’s not much now to flee the country in a strop or engage in some mud-slinging to de-stress. After all, as the writer points out, “El país somos nosotros!” – “We are the country” –  a sentiment easily forgotten when emotions run high, or when, as in this case, the population lives beneath the shadow of a pretty hefty head of state. Chávez’s re-election does not spell the end of Venezuela as we know it. Rather, it can be taken as an opportunity for the opposition to mobilise, to take advantage of community support, to get involved in politics beyond speculation and, perhaps most importantly, open dialogue with government followers.

As I write this post, Venezuelan news websites run the headline: “Chávez and Capriles Speak On The Telephone”. An unremarkable event, perhaps, in British politics, for the victor to commiserate the runner-up; though quite out of character for Venezuela’s famously stubborn leader to stretch out a hand over the divide. Of course, this gesture could be entirely meaningless, a publicity stunt, or a tactic to keep the peace. But suppose, for a moment, that the outgoing call from Chávez’s Blackberry signals the start of a conversation yet to be had between the anti- and the pro-. I’m not predicting miracles but now, neither is Chávez – he has recently recognised that his brand of socialism needs to change, and in his victory speech vowed to “be a better president”, and “respond with greater efficiency to the needs of the people” . Many of the opposition will say they’ve heard that line before. But maybe, after a decade of hostile silence, now’s the time to talk.

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