January 4, 2017

FAILED (profanity alert):

Venezuela, a Failing State (William Finnegan, Nov. 7th, 2016, The New Yorker)

The revolution being defended is usually known, in Venezuela, as Chavismo, for its chief protagonist, Hugo Chávez, who was the country's President from 1999 until his death, in 2013. For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting--a paroxysm known as the Caracazo--which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background--his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency.

He soon rewrote the constitution, concentrating power in the executive. Like his hero, Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader who drove the Spanish out of South America, he had regional ambitions. He used Venezuela's oil wealth, which is vast, to help cement a close alliance with Cuba and then with a number of other neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, creating a strategic and economic bloc to counter the traditional hegemony of the United States.

Chávez was a telegenic populist with a gift for electioneering. He mesmerized the country with his Sunday TV show, "Hello, President!," on which he railed for hours on end against his opponents, particularly the country's traditional business élites and imperialist Washington, told jokes and stories, sang, extolled the achievements of his Bolivarian Revolution, and issued decrees, some of them consequential--the expropriation of a factory, the consignment of ten military battalions to the Colombian border. He even took to TV to order the jailing of a judge who had released a hated enemy. (In the case of the judge, the enemy was a banker who had been in jail awaiting trial for three years, which was longer than the law allowed, and the judge herself then spent three and a half years in jail--where her lawyer says she was raped--and under house arrest. Although she has never been tried, she is still forbidden to speak to the press or leave Venezuela.)

Chávez propped up the Cuban economy with cheap oil, and in return the Cubans sent thousands of doctors, to help start a network of health clinics. After Chávez barely survived a 2002 coup attempt, the Cubans also sent teams of military and intelligence advisers who taught their Venezuelan counterparts how to surveil and disrupt the political opposition Cuban-style, with close monitoring, harassment, and strategic arrests.

The Bolivarian Revolution is not the Cuban Revolution. The "twenty-­first-century socialism" that Chavismo seeks to build has relied on electoral democracy; opinion polling and elections qualify as national obsessions. Chávez ruled in permanent campaign mode--there was always a referendum, a parliamentary election, a Presidential contest looming. These campaigns, lively and technically "free and fair," were not without risk for participants. In 2003, when three million voters signed a petition calling for a Presidential recall--using a mechanism included in the 1999 constitution--their names and national-­identity numbers were recorded and used to create a blacklist. Those who had signed were fired from government jobs, denied loans and contracts, and otherwise penalized. During an oil-price boom that began in 2004, the distribution of state largesse to key constituencies went into overdrive. Chávez won nearly every important election held over fifteen years, including the recall effort.

Nicolás Maduro, a onetime bus driver and Chávez's Vice-President, lacks the magic voter touch. He squeaked into office in a special election held in April, 2013, six weeks after Chávez died. Maduro has a mystical streak, and has told the nation that a little bird speaks to him, bringing news of Chávez from the afterlife. He calls himself "the son of Chávez," and he and his government justify, at least to their fellow-­chavistas, much of what they do by insisting that it represents the will of the late leader. In parliamentary elections in December, 2015, antichavista parties won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. From that base, an opposition alliance has been demanding a referendum to recall Maduro, whose poll numbers have dropped steadily. The Maduro government is stalling, throwing up procedural roadblocks through institutions it still controls, notably the Supreme Court and the National Election Commission. If a vote is held, Maduro will very likely lose.

The eyes of Chávez are everywhere. It's a stylized graphic, just a few heavy black lines, depicting eyes and brows, and you see it on billboards, T-shirts, flags, and the left sleeve of a polo shirt on a man sitting across the airplane aisle. The eyes are the first thing I see each morning when I open the curtains in my Caracas hotel room--they're painted huge, on the building opposite. Evidently, many people find them inspiring, or comforting: El Comandante continues to watch over us.

True believers still abound. I sat with Carmen Ruiz, a trim grandmother with merry eyes, in a breezy passage between shops in a small town near Caracas called El Hatillo. "My life has improved," she said. Ruiz grew up in poverty, in a hillside barrio called El Calvario, just above the old town of El Hatillo. She worked as a seamstress and a cook, and learned accounting, while raising four kids. The living wasn't easy. She mentioned the terror of the Caracazo. "We first heard of Chávez in 1992, when he attempted the coup," she said. "My husband and I started studying his words. From jail, he was sending out strategic lines, about Venezuela's whole situation--historical, economic, national, international. It was a complete analysis, from 1811, more than twenty constitutions. He was very wise. And we were convinced: This is the man. He was a campesino, very simple. Everybody would be equal. We started working for his release."

For the poor, everything got better under the revolution, Ruiz said. Health care, education, housing, transportation: "Many shacks in El Calvario got new roofs. My mother, who always had the intelligence, finally learned to read, in her seventies." In 2005, Ruiz became a member of the communal assembly--a neighborhood council meant to counter the power of mayors. She described herself, smiling shyly, as "a soldier of the revolution." She went to work for the ministry of culture and began to study, among other things, local history. She was carrying two bags filled with books and papers, and told me that she was writing a history of El Hatillo. Her family had lived here for eight generations, "and I really want to document the history of the place. I don't want it to be lost."

Her ancestors, who were black and indigenous, were cafeteros--small coffee farmers--in the neighboring countryside. "But my great-grandfather had a big hacienda, and eighteen children, with the women who worked for him. My grandpa inherited one-eighteenth of the hacienda, and he lived well as a cafetero. Then modernity came. The family who had the first radio used to put it on the corner for everybody to hear news and music. The government built roads to Caracas, and rich people built big houses here. The cafeteros dwindled away. But the militares who governed us were always trying to advance their own interests. They didn't care about anyone else."

I asked about the current food shortages and failing hospitals. "It is an economic war totally orchestrated by fascistic factions on the right," Ruiz explained. "In every country, you have an oligarchy, a bourgeoisie, working to prevent other groups from gaining power. Our economic situation is imposed by outside powers, by transnational companies like Polar."

The government constantly cites this "economic war," secretly directed from Washington, to explain the gutted economy.  [...]

It's understandable that angry Venezuelans talk about "the dictatorship." Their rights are under siege. But real dictatorships impose order. Hugo Chávez worshipped at the feet of Fidel, who would not tolerate one-tenth of the disorder, street crime, and gun violence that plague Venezuela. To be fair, crime was already rampant when Chávez came to power, and people hoped that, as a military man, he would be able to rein in the malandros. But Chávez showed little interest in law enforcement. He even objected to the idea of a professional police force. That would be a "police of the bourgeois state." Crime was a result of poverty, inequality, and capitalism. Today, researchers estimate that the annual number of homicides is as high as ninety per hundred thousand people. The government says it is only fifty-eight per hundred thousand. Whatever. In 1984, the number was between eight and ten.

It's always quaint when folks pretend there's an alternative to the End of History...,

Posted by at January 4, 2017 10:03 AM


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