May 24, 2004

Two Stories: Darius Rejali and Julia

Story 1: In college, I was fortunate enough to learn from Darius Rejali, a brilliant Iranian-American political scientist specializing in Torture. He taught a class called Comparative Revolutions, which I took and, if I remember, got an A for. Darius is a wonderful flamboyant character with a razor intelligence. One memory stands out from that class, though:

Darius brought in an English translation of the Chinese People's Republic constitution. He started reading its procedural clauses, and, remarkably, it sounded not unlike a Western constitution: there was a legislative branch, an executive, courts, civilian control of the state, social rights, the works.

Next, as an assignment, he asked us to use the then new-fangled thing called the "internet" to look up constitutions of other authoritarian states. Somebody did North Korea, someone else did Cuba, then Vietnam, Egypt, Burma etc. And, surprise surprise, every dictatorship out there we could find had a sterling democratic-seeming constititon. What it didn't have, Darius argued, was the cultural or social institutions to sustain real democracy, or the political will to build them.

Something to keep in mind as you consider the implosion of Venezuelan Institutions

Story 2:
There's something horribly stereotypical about telling stories about caraqueños' house staff to make political points, but this once I will make an exception. One of my sisters, a Sumate volunteers, tells me the story of the psychodrama in her kitchen on the evening of February 27th, the start of the week of anti-CNE rioting in Eastern Caracas.

My sister had hired a cook, Julia, to feed her sprawling family. Julia is a chavista, my sister a Colomina listener, but also enough of a comeflor to refuse to let politics interfere in their relationship. So, they agreed simply not to talk about politics. My sister watched Globovision and Julia watched VTV and they didn't communicate about it.

This uneasy situation changed on the evening of February 27th, when the news showed that CNE had called into question 876,000 signatures from the recall petition drive. Julia, who had barely a few years' formal education, heard the TV presenter say that many of the questioned signatures were "planillas planas", i.e. forms filled out on behalf of the signer, which the signer then signed.

The TV presenter went on to say that many such signatures were gathered at hospitals, from very old or sick people who could not write easily, or from people with limited literacy, who might make mistakes filling the form.

At this she broke down crying and told my sister that that was it, she couldn't support the government anymore. Julia, who can barely write herself, was deeply offended that the government was maneouvering to stop people like her from registering their views officially. "Wasn't this what Chavez promised?"

My sister, not wanting to be overbearing at a time like this, suggested simply that she take a piece of paper and a pen and try to write down how she was feeling just then, and why she had come to change her mind like that.

In heartbreakingly misshapen handwriting, with no punctuation and no spaces between words, Julia wrote of her bitterness at the desperate and deteriorating economics of being a barrio dweller, and at how impossibly competitive the job market for people like her was. "The situation is really not right in the barrios now," she wrote.

My sister tells me she talked about the three chavistas in CNE as kinds of devils for all the mischief their decision was causing. Certainly, she had never before held a job where she had to pack sandwich lunches for the señora to eat at the barricades.

I don't think Julia will be joining my sister in any marches, but I do think the story is significant, and touching. Chavistas have eyes to see, and ears to listen...