Confessions from a Foreigner: Thoughts on Chavismo and its opposition

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When I first arrived in Venezuela in 2006, I was predisposed to supporting Hugo Chávez and his project known as the Bolivarian Revolution. I come from an academic background in Latin American Studies; I have read of the the horrors enacted by right-wing and military governments during the late twentieth century. I’m a perennial student, a firm believer in open access to education and universal rights. If indeed it still exists, I’d say I was a staunch follower of the left in my home country. One of the reasons I initially chose to live in Venezuela was to experience the Revolution first hand. I wanted to see that socialism was alive, that politics could work, that the people were finally protagonists. Like Wendy Darling, perhaps, I wanted to believe.

What I have experienced in Chávez’s Neverland has been entirely mixed. I’ve met intelligent, committed people who truly believe in Chávez’s project, dedicating their lives to advancing his views. I’ve witnessed solid community groups- especially in rural areas – working tirelessly to improve local living conditions with the help of governmental sponsorship. I’ve participated in social forums, eaten food at subsidised prices, accompanied friends to state clinics to be treated for free. I’ve watched the growth of cultural movements nurtured by youth and creativity. I’ve seen empowerment – talked to people who feel empowered – by Chávez’s controversial politics. I’ve taught in a higher education mission, offering university courses to those most geographically isolated. I’ve travelled cheaply in state-subsidised airplanes, bought books sold at dirt low prices, and watched the Venezuelan Symphonic Orchestra perform for free. These were my ‘buts’ for those against Chavismo. These were my justifications, the thoughts of my devil’s advocate, the fairy dust that cured.

Seven years on, I dedicate my ‘buts’ to those still dreaming. Because along with the good things I’ve seen – and there are more to add to the list – I’ve seen too many bad things that tip the scales. I’ve felt sky-high inflation make the weekly food shop grate. I’ve watched those closest to me work tirelessly in state education and go for a year – twelve months – without a single cent of pay. I’ve watched a man die after a simple misdiagnosis at one of Chávez’s health missions. I’ve seen rubbish pile up on street corners and have witnessed a three-day power cut. I’ve been subject to water rationing and have seen supermarket shelves empty of products. I’ve heard more than one mother cry at her son’s funeral, his killer free and unpunished in the barrio so celebrated by the government. I’ve been forced to pass students lagging through each step of the university mission, “because that’s the way it works”.  I’ve walked through open sewers in the hills of Caracas. I’ve seen the black market for dollars expand from Bs.4 in 2006 to Bs.25. I’ve physically climbed across landslides that the government has been unable to clear. I’ve seen an alarming level of aggression, from both sides, develop between chavistas and the opposition. I’ve read threats of violence, from both sides, promising war and divine justice. I’ve seen the manipulation of cult adoration, I’ve watched ambitions crumble, I’ve seen humble people, one by one, abandon chavismo with nowhere else to go. 

And now, on one side, I watch a flagrant abuse of the Venezuelan Constitution. Nicolas Maduro has accepted the invented role of the “Assuming President of the Republic”, allowing him to stand as presidential candidate for the April elections. By law, a vice-president cannot run for this role. By law, Diosdado Cabello – president of the National Assembly – should now be running the country. By law, Chávez should have been sworn in on January 10th. By law, the presidential elections should take place before April 5th, not on the 14th. But none of that seems to matter.  Maduro has declared his decision to stand; Maduro will probably win.

On the other side, I watch Henrique Capriles state his intention to run for the opposition. I hear his followers’ elated reactions, listen to them repeat his words, and worry that their relationship with him comes alarmingly close to that of chavistas with Chávez. Capriles declares that he is no God, and yet by some he is treated as such: he is Venezuela’s solution, he is unity, he is peace. I follow his discourse, convinced of his good intentions but unconvinced by his policies beyond charisma. I hear the cheers and fireworks that explode outside my apartment once his declaration finishes. I wonder if Venezuelan politics has ever been, or ever will be, capable of surmounting personality. I wonder the same of our politics back home. I wonder how I would vote if I could. I wonder if supporters of Chávez in Europe would accept the living conditions here that hit the poorest hardest. I wonder what will happen. I wonder if I’m wrong.

 

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6 thoughts on “Confessions from a Foreigner: Thoughts on Chavismo and its opposition

  1. Great insight and very fair to Venezuela’s reality, Rebecca. I enjoyed your reading. I have to tell you, since you mentioned you are a perennial student, that the quality of education was a little bit better before Chavez, the Universidad Central always been free, and we always had had the possibility to listen to first class concerts with top world invited conductors, at the aula magna for less than a dollar the ticket. But the most important thing is that you could go to school and not be forced to be part of a political party. My sister who is a doctor worked at the barrio in social programs long before Chavez, and she is Venezuelan, not a Cuban medical worker who sometimes are not qualified. A lot of people voted for Chavez the first time thinking he was gonna eliminate corruption and put the country to work, after all he was a Venezuelan. But what have he done but giving the country away, teach hatred and keep it up with the kleptocracy big time.

    • Thank you for your comments, especially those relating to the social programmes in place before Chávez took power. Your crucial point – one often overlooked by foreign commentators – is that projects like El Sistema, (almost) free higher education (though not including Mission Sucre), and outreach health clinics all existed prior to 1999, some dating way back to 1973. There’s no doubt that, with the help of the media, Chávez co-opted many of these into his own rule, though it also must be said that he expanded on these in a way that, at least to my knowledge, no previous president had done before. I lived for almost a year in a small village some 6 hours from the nearest city, Merida. Many of the residents had extremely limited access to health and education before the “Bolivarian Revolution”; the results of Chávez’s helping hand in this sense were tangible. Of course, he was helped by a windfall in oil prices, and a huge dose of charisma didn’t do him badly either: two crucial ingredients that Maduro lacks…

  2. I agree with you Rebecca. Not opposed at all of Chavez expanding all those services that to be honest should always be for free and abundant, given the number of the population and the amount of money the country received. My problem is the dictatorial nature and now with Maduro trying to take over, so abusive how they are taken over our democracy, that’s unacceptable. The way they have handled Chavez’s illness… it’s so degrading. Venezuela, given the amount of money they receive, always been so corrupted, but this guys have taken the price of being the biggest thugs of all.

  3. Hello, Rebecca. Very good thoughts. However, i have to tell you a little more about some points. Like the System of Orchestras. It has been always important and its director has been always a good leader on this beautiful project that was born way before CH. Actually, Venezuelan cultural performances, including the orchestras have always been accessible to everyone. I think i should scan you the schedule of concerts with very very low prices (5 bs, 2bs for students or elderly) Almost as cheap as gasoline. Im talking about prices in 2004-05. Ballets, operas and orchestras have always been cheap, as it used to be baseball games. Talking about supermarkets. you could even buy things like aunt jemima’s pancake mix in any place. Now you hardly get what you want, As basic as milk! And if its like a foreign product of high quality you are likely to find it on the East/expensive side of the city. There is not forgiveness for this disrespect. I feel sorry for all the private sector and food companies that got expropiated by this CH gov, I feel sorry for my neighbor who had her house robbed with invasors sent by government. Institutions / government bodies used to be more autonomous regarding guidelines. Nowadays you can go to any place and see Chavex pictures, propaganda even in the bathrooms, people addicted to their forever leader, wearing red shirts as a symbol of the revolution, they even have to go to demonstrations, and if disagree with the proccess they kick you out, because that has happened to me and to some of my friends. To me chavistas are resentful that were fed by their leader on never ending tv chains. Maybe you were here when he would “close” a very popular TV channel, or when they “erased” 107 radio stations only because they were a monopoly. I think this all is worse but seriously WAY worse than it was before his presidency. Actually there was no dolar restriction, no cadivi, no restrictions on credit cards, there were public schools and social programs, deficient, but they already existed, Oil barrel with chavez raised to + 100. Where is the money? Former governments built more houses for the people than Chavez and in a fewer lapse of time (5 years each mandate) People would be tollerant betwween parties and everyone would go to the anniversary or open air fests of any party. I mean people would be in political peace. Until this monkey arrived. And sorry for the animal comparisson, but CHavex was a bad very evil beast. I can not be happy with his projects when he was destroying a half of the country and put its people to be enemies. I can re born and never ever agree with this destructor. Sorry for the english mistakes in writing.

    • Ana, I realize that el sistema was created by Abreu in the early 1970s, although its expansion under Chavez has been significant. Whether this is due to the government’s support or the organic growth inherent to the programme is hard to say for sure. I suspect both factors are at play. Though strict foreign currency rates were implemented in 2003, exchange controls have been used sporadically by governments of all political hues since 1983. Recadi, for example, was in place 1983-89 and OTAC in 1994-95. Part of the reason the political opposition has, until now, been weak in Venezuela has been its refusal to consider cultural and historical factors responsible for Chavez’s political strength and popular success. The country’s current crisis, I feel, has its roots much further back than 1999. Articles that detail the socio-economic status of the country around the time of the Caracazo in 89, for example, could well be describing the state of things today. Fernando Coronil gives an excellent recount of the extraordinary failings of the Venezuelan state during the twentieth century in his book, _The Magical State_. Sadly, little seems to have changed in political styles of leadership – right or left – since Perez Jimenez’s dictatorship in the 1950s.

  4. Hello Rebecca, I just wanted to let you know how much I like both this entry and your blog.
    Also (in relation to your reply to anagonzalezp), I am in complete agreement that there continues to be some troubling continuities in the Venezuelan state, in some ways since Gómez, I think–albeit that would be a much longer discussion on its own–that are generally overlooked even in a lot of academic work. Coronil, of course, was an important exception.
    Anyway, I’m curious about where you were staying in the Andes (I assume you were in that region since Mérida was the closest city), and also what your PhD research is about. I’m from Mérida, but currently in Michigan working on a PhD thesis on Venezuelan cultural production/politics/oil, so I’d be interested in hearing about your work/interests.

    saludos.

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