For Venezuela’s Bolivarians, victory even in defeat

What preceded this 17-year Bolivarian era? A corrupt power-sharing electoral machine (resulting from the Punto Fijo Pact, signed by the country’s main political parties and effectively keeping them in power) ruled Venezuela after a period of dictatorship ended in 1958. From 1958 to 1998, Punto Fijo administered poverty for the population, enforcing it through limiting press freedom, police violence, and even state-sponsored murder and disappearances. I went to a very moving event in Caracas in 2004 in which survivors of the “dirty war” of the 1960s and 1970s commemorated their lost loved ones.

The beginning of the end for Punto Fijo was the 1989 riots — known as Caracazo — that were sparked when people woke up to doubled bus fares. The army was called. Hundreds of people were killed. In 1992, a group of army officers, among them Hugo Chavez, tried to overthrow Punto Fijo. When the coup failed, Chavez went on television to call on the soldiers to stand down, took responsibility, and went to jail. When he got out, he advocated an electoral and constitutional path to change. Twenty successful elections later, the Bolivarians have lost the legislature.

Why did they lose? From 2008 on, and especially since the oil price drop in 2014, Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy suffered, as did the Bolivarian social programs and the people that benefited from them. Macroeconomic mistakes by the government in an already difficult situation fed the black market in dollars and the smuggling economy (see analysis by Greg Wilpert), which led to major suffering, frustration and a loss of support for the government.

Continuing problems of corruption within the state, as well as crime, also hurt. Both of these problems preceded the Bolivarians, but the revolution was not successful enough in dealing with them. The opposition earned points campaigning on both.

The Bolivarians accomplished much since arriving on the scene. Massive barriers to health care and education were removed. Social services were built where there had been none. Before it became the target of smugglers, a program guaranteeing affordable prices for staple grocery and other items was very successful.

But here is the Bolivarian accomplishment to celebrate after Dec. 6: The opposition, who look nostalgically on the days of Punto Fijo, were only able to win by using the fair electoral system and constitution established by the Bolivarians.

The opposition had tried a military coup in 2002. They had tried a national strike and sabotage of the country’s oil infrastructure from 2002 to 2003. They tried a recall referendum in 2004 and made false claims of fraud when they lost. They tried sabre-rattling and foreign threats. They tried skirmishes on the border with Colombia, and they tried infiltrating paramilitaries across the border to carry out acts of destabilization.

Most recently, there were violent opposition actions in the streets and another Venezuela-Colombia border problem. Day in, day out, for the entire 16 years of Bolivarian rule, virulent, false, anti-government broadcasts have been on Venezuelan television and in the Western media. The Bolivarian movement survived it all, always forcing the contest onto the democratic field of elections and winning. And when they lost on that field, they conceded defeat.

Much remains to be seen: how the Bolivarian president and the opposition legislature will manage, the extent to which the opposition will respect the democracy and the constitution that brought them into the legislature, whether the movement can regroup and find a way to resolve the country’s economic problems.

In the meantime, it is worth remembering at this time that Venezuela’s democracy is an achievement of the Bolivarians. Even in losing, they have won, at least for now.

First published on Ricochet: https://ricochet.media/en/804/for-venezuelas-bolivarians-victory-even-in-defeat

Hugo Chavez, Presente

I only started paying attention to Hugo Chavez and Venezuela at the time of the 2002 coup. At the time, I was deeply engaged with the Canada Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Friends I was making were on the run, living underground, trying to work in a context of disappearances and massacres, assassinations and torture, in a country that was being reshaped by a massive military program called Plan Colombia. We believed at the time that Plan Colombia was not just about Colombia, but about the whole hemisphere and very specifically about Venezuela, its oil wealth, and its uncooperative government. But I didn’t know much about that government or think much about it other than that it was up to Venezuelans to decide, and it seemed to me that they had decided.

In the 48 hours or so that the 2002 coup lasted, I interviewed some Venezuelan activists who had gone underground, and they gave me some readings (Richard Gott, Juli Buxton to start). I looked at the data. When Chavez was restored, I started following Venezuela closely. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became my favourite documentary. And over the next 11 years, with two visits to Venezuela, I saw so much to admire. Everywhere I went in Venezuela, as I heard the language, saw the people, saw the physical landscape, I was reminded of Colombia. But the everyday paranoia and fear of the regime that I could feel in Colombia didn’t exist in Venezuela. While Colombia was living through this nightmare of displacement and violence in its US-sponsored counterinsurgency, Chavez’s Venezuela was actually making real progress for its people. That Colombian nightmare was always in the back of my mind whenever I heard about Venezuela, that if the US had their way, Venezuelans would be living that nightmare too.

The welfare and the democratization, the regional and international diplomacy, are all huge achievements, a tremendous legacy. But for many of these years I have thought of Chavez’s legacy in terms of avoided losses. Thousands of people *not* massacred, millions *not* displaced, thousands *not* dying from preventable diseases, tens of thousands of opportunities for education *not* wasted, for fourteen years. Almost a generation.

Greg Grandin, in his article On The Legacy of Hugo Chavez, wrote something that I really felt:

“Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Chavismo’s social-welfare programs will endure now that Chávez is gone and shelve the leftwing hope that out of rank-and-file activism a new, sustainable way of organizing society will emerge. The participatory democracy that took place in barrios, in workplaces and in the countryside over the last fourteen years was a value in itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a better world.”

He made all of this happen in Venezuela, and the fact is that even if all he did was talk, I would have appreciated Chavez a lot and taken his loss personally, which I do. I remember during the 2004 recall referendum, when his people were concerned about how the opposition or the US might try to sabotage the revolution, he told a story from Venezuelan folk history about a character named Florentino, who played a game with the Devil, singing songs back and forth. Florentino was the last one to sing, and so he drove the devil off. The night before the referendum he told the opposition that he would invite them for breakfast – well, brunch, given how late they would be up celebrating. The next day he said, the brunch we prepared got cold, because nobody came. He was one of the only political figures to talk straight about Haiti, about Afghanistan, about Iraq, about Palestine and it was refreshing to everyone who knew what was happening in these places and knew how it was being hidden under clouds of confusion and lies.

Chavez is irreplaceable, but he is also, as Derrick O’Keefe wrote, undefeated.

Viva Chavez!

Implementing the Bolivarian Revolution: Julio Chavez in Toronto

On October 10/09 Venezuelan former mayor, now state legislator Julio Chavez spoke at the University of Toronto sponsored by Hands off Venezuela and the Louis Riel Bolivarian Circle. He came in sporting the unassuming Bolivarian fashion: red T-shirt, red baseball cap (with a Canada logo on it), jeans, and sneakers, and fired up a powerpoint presentation.

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Moises Naim’s scary world

I picked up Moises Naim’s book “Illicit” (2005), as the book of record on illegal trade (or, what I call, following my friend Manuel Rozental, “illegal capital”). I wanted to read it because I’m trying to figure out how much of the global economy flows into these different niches. You can understand the economy one way by following energy flows, another by following money, another by following technology (like the story of stuff), another by following arms, another by following illicit trade. And each of these has some relationship with the others. And the whole picture is, well, a little beyond me. What I am wondering about is what the relationship between this kind of trade is and the aboveground economy of employment, incomes, the state, investment, and so on. What happens to this economy during a financial meltdown? When is it better for a kind of economic activity to be legal and when illegal? My answer to that, as someone who is against prohibition, is different from most. But I’m all for learning whatever can be learned from whatever sources there are. Including, if it comes to that, the editor of Foreign Affairs, who is also an opponent of the Venezuelan Bolivarian proceso (a process I support).

I did some reading on “cyber crime” (mainly identity theft and credit card theft), for example, before this, and one of the causes of the increase in cyber crime was the huge number of technically skilled people in Russia thrown out of work by the neoliberal restructuring of the 1990s (it was not put in these terms exactly, but that was the upshot). Other things being equal, people would rather work in the licit than in the illicit economy. So under what circumstances does the illicit economy grow, and shrink? To the extent it is bad for people, how to stop it or minimize its harms?

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Naim’s book very useful on these questions. His basic argument is that technology and globalization have made illicit trade blossom. He doesn’t differentiate enough between crimes that shouldn’t be crimes, like software ‘piracy’ (see the views of Richard Stallman, who I follow in this, for an explanation of information freedom), and crimes that should be, such as human trafficking and sexual slavery. Even the latter crimes might be better stopped through legalization of prostitution and giving sex workers the protection of the law from violence rather than forcing them into the underworld. Naim acknowledges the possibility of demand reduction measures, including decriminalization, but having thoroughly frightened his readers with the spectre of massive illicit trade, he suggests a crazy dystopia of technological surveillance and state power as a solution. Starting on page 243, he advocates digital fingerprinting of products, biometrics, detection devices, surveillance (everywhere, including online), GPS tracking of people, and the increased use of biotechnology and DNA!

For people looking to think sensibly about security issues, please try Bruce Schneier instead. His “Beyond Fear” was an excellent book. It might be the thing to read after Naim, if you need to clear your mind a little.

Colombia’s war and Venezuela’s foreign policy: The context of the recent release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez

[Published on ZNet: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16296. Updated Jan 29/08.)

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Chavez’s Proposal Fails – but don’t despair

The Constitutional Reform referendum in Venezuela has failed, and Chavez, unlike the Venezuelan opposition, gracefully accepted the defeat. I know that a lot of people are disappointed, but I think there are some very good things that can come out of this.

Before I get into that, the results. “No” got 50.7% (4 504 351), “Yes” got 49.2% (4 159 392) votes. Abstention was very high, at 44.11%. I got these results from El Tiempo, the Colombian newspaper, and they come from when there were 97% of the votes counted.

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Venezuela Radio en Vivo

It’s late, I’m doing my usual ZNet editing routine, and I want to write something before the night is through. Probably too ambitious. But at the very least I can post this, what looks like an excellent and important project covering the upcoming referendum in Venezuela, something on which there will be abundant misinformation and on which solid information will be important.

Venezuela radio en vivo has some credible people involved and I think it might be a source of such solid information. Check it out.

The King tells Chavez to shut up… and more

Adventures at the Ibero-American summit of leaders. Chavez was talking about how the Spanish right-wing including the prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, supported the coup against his government in 2002. He called Aznar a “fascist”, and the King of Spain said to him: “Why don’t you shut up?” Then Bachelet of Chile tried to moderate while Zapatero, Spain’s current prime minister, told Chavez that Aznar had been elected and deserves respect, even though he (Zapatero) doesn’t agree with him. Ortega of Nicaragua spoke in Chavez’s defense. Reflections about the symbolism of that little moment are left to the reader.

On to more serious business – the humanitarian accord between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, which was the subject of a long meeting between Chavez and Colombia’s president Uribe at the Ibero-American summit.

Recap: The FARC are asking for the government to withdraw from two zones and leave them to FARC control and release 500 prisoners in exchange for 45 prisoners who had been kidnapped by FARC, mostly civilians. Last night I had the chance to hang out with Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, a pretty-well informed fellow who is in North America to receive an award from Human Rights Watch, and he thinks the deal is likely to go through, because Venezuela, France, and the US are all supportive. I suggested that US support could be fickle and withdrawn at any point on the old “don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument. But Hollman didn’t think that’s the way the wind is blowing.

One important Colombian in the humanitarian accord is senator Piedad Cordoba, who was important back in 2003 in defeating Uribe’s referendum. She revealed the other day that shortly after she met with FARC leader Raul Reyes, the Colombian Army attacked and almost killed the guerrilla leader. Uribe told the press at the Ibero-American summit that “actions against the guerrillas will continue irrespective of their meetings with senator Cordoba”.

The governments and FARC are being sketchy about the details of the humanitarian accord and the ongoing negotiations in order to give themselves room to negotiate, obviously. But it could happen…