Imagine being in a conference room and hearing those words.
Listening to a talk by "the bride of the revolution", the unabashedly fanatical Chavista apologist Golinger, was going to be a serious test of my tolerance. Luckily, Eva's presence did not materialize, but it did not make my experience any less painful.
See, I spent much of Monday sitting in a well-lit, air conditioned conference room overlooking the Caracas valley, surrounded by video screens and state-of-the-art sound equipment, watching the Gulfstreams of the revolution's kleptocrats land in the middle of this traffic-congested city. The purpose? I wanted to get a first-hand experience of the revolution's indoctrination and the effect it is causing. Yet painful as it was, what I learned was surprising and I was happy Quico practically forced me to go.
The story began the previous week with an email from my old friend Roger. Roger works for a government institute affiliated with the Venezuelan Navy. After finishing his studies abroad, Roger applied for this job and got it by virtue of his excellent qualifications and, most of all, because he never signed any petition against President Chavez.
Roger asked me last week if I wanted to tag along to this event. It was called "The Third Engine of the Revolution: Morals and Enlightenment," (in Spanish, "Moral y Luces", part of a famous quote of Simon Bolivar's, identifying them as the country's primary necessities). It consisted of a seminar on socialist indoctrination held by the government - at taxpayer expense, of course.
Attendance was mandatory for the entire office. Roger's bosses made sure the building where they work was locked up, lest anyone think of going to the office for work instead. Not knowing what to expect, I decided to tag along.
The event was held at UEFA, formerly PDVSA of Chuao. UEFA stands for the Experimental University of the Armed Forces, and by the look of it, it is a regular university with regular civilian students, only here all students have to wear a uniform with the seal of the university. Thankfully the uniform is white and blue, not red, but I was still impressed with the sui generis ways of chavista universities. Can you imagine the reaction of US students at, say, Berkeley, if they were forced to wear a uniform to class?
The crowd included hundreds of employees from Roger's office, from the maintenance staff to uniformed naval officers. The head captains of each and every Venezuelan port were seated in the first few rows, having flown to Caracas especially for the occasion - I had to wonder who was minding our ports if all the port captains were here.
The first talk was from a man named Haiman El-Troudi. As I later found out, Mr. El-Troudi is an old communist workhorse from Barinas, the President's home state, which has surely helped him rise high in the rankings of chavista "intellectual" nomenklatur. The talk was basically a retread of old Marxist principles I heard many times during my studies in public universities, where the nefarious "IVth Republic" gave these Marxists plenty of freedom to spread their ideas. But a few things sounded new to me.
For example, Mr. El-Troudi outlined why XXIst Century Socialism was different from the XXth Century version, as practiced in the Soviet Union and its satellites. He said Pres. Chavez's project was different because it was:
a) not based on State capitalism;The laundry list of everything the Revolution supposedly "isn't" but so clearly "is" made me chuckle.
b) not averse to popular participation and to putting the people in a starring role;
c) not totalitarian, nor a believer in excessive democratic centralism;
d) not populist, not messianic and not paternalistic;
e) not based on building up armament;
f) not atheist;
g) not a single-party system;
h) not a believer in extrapolating or exporting models.
He also riffed on the new forms of private property, one being a brand-new "revolutionary" notion they like to call "Social Production Companies." These companies are supposed to function as cooperatives supported by the government, but their design is still hazy because, according to Mr. El-Troudi, the employees participate in the decision-making process and their capitalist values lead them to think they are the owners or that they are the government's partners, which they are clearly not. The speaker said this came up in negotiations with Sidor, a company partly owned by the workers. They are addressing this issue with the President, fine-tuning the system so that workers' capitalist vices cannot find a way of expressing themselves.
An intermission for a "beverage" was animated by a tambora group, which, as Roger explained to me, was typical in Chavista seminars, always including some form of "cultural expression." The dancers were quite skilled, and very provocative. Their movements, their attire - which left little to the imagination - and the beating of their drums reminded me of long-gone weekend nights in Choroní, but as you can imagine it did not seem appropriate for a seminar on political indoctrination in a University. This, however, didn't prevent some of the participants from joining them in the ruckus.
More talk followed, this time about education. The speaker, a mild-mannered professor of Education at Simón Rodríguez Experimental University, bored us to tears with tales of Rodriguez and how the Revolution's educational project resembles his ideals of inclusion and racial diversity in the schools. He mentioned that Rodríguez died in poverty, surrounded by his books, which made me question his concept of poverty since books must have cost a fortune in the XIXth Century.
Although less controversial than the previous talks, the speaker's tone made it perfectly clear that underneath his navy-blue sweater vest beat the heart of a true Marxist. Through it all, he did not bother to speak about increasing educational coverage, or the quality of the nation's teachers, or the infrastructure of our public schools, or the lack of technology, just to mention a few of the pressing issues that make our current educational system a failed one.
We were about to leave when the question-and-answer session began.
Only one person stood up. He identified himself as Marcos, a small-scale fishing entrepeneur from Apure in his late forties, whose European looks had been darkened over the years by the unforgiving sunlight of the Llanos.
Marcos said, in a typical Llanero accent, that he was a follower of the process and a believer in the President. He then proceeded to ask why it is that they were being lectured on giving up wealth and letting go of capitalist ambitions when there were so many important figures in the Revolution buying expensive cars, traveling all over the world and hiding behind tinted-glass windows "so the people won't see them."
The speaker asked Marcos to finish his question, to which he replied that he was forced to sit there for five hours, that his time deserved respect and he was going to say his piece without being rushed. He spoke about how there are many environmental problems in the rivers of Apure, how the only infrastructure for fishermen was built by Carlos Andres Perez and how he thinks that, no, it's not heresy to acknowledge that and throw CAP a bone.
In his straight-forward manner, he said he believed in the process and that he thought we should all let go of the capitalist values that made us, for example, want to go eat at McDonald's or Tropi Burger. At that moment, people started groaning, with one woman behind me saying "con McDonalds no te metas! Ve que me gustan los nuggets" - roughly translated into "don't mess with McDonalds, I like my nuggets!"
Marcos finished his speech asking how a revolutionary like himself can reconcile the need to let go of his goods while the revolution's bigshots enjoy an excess of sudden wealth. Spontaneous applause broke out in the crowd, and my squalid jaw hit the floor.
The speaker's answer was that people succumb to the temptations of luxury goods because they have been programmed by capitalism for too many years - see, it's not the crooks' fault, it's capitalism that made them do it. Ergo, the only way to get rid of corruption is to get rid of capitalism. In the meantime, he said that the only way to counter this is by enforcing "social comptrolling" or "contraloria social", a catch-all phrase of imprecise meaning used by chavistas when they want to convince the people they are empowered in situations where they clearly aren't.
I didn't want to attend this forum. Quite frankly, I was a bit scared to go there, not knowing what I would find or even if I would be allowed in the building. I fully expected to go home in a state of depression and anxiety. With all the friends I have in Caracas, why waste precious time inmersed in revolutionary rhetoric?
Imagine my surprise when I left feeling a renewed sense of optimism. See, the forum convinced me that chavismo's internal contradictions are slowly coming to the surface.
I spoke to other participants. One woman said she liked the talk, but she didn't like the part about education because she didn't want her kids exposed to a single doctrine. Another woman rolled her eyes when I asked her about the seminar, and told me she wouldn't be there if they hadn't forced her to go.
Slowly but surely, chavistas are beginning to resent the manipulation. Being taught to forget about comfort and consumption by people who drive around in Hummers is, quite simply, a farce, and people know it.
The people in the forum were mostly lower-level employees from a particular public office. They may or may not be representative, and while most of them do not have much formal education, they can sense the danger in the government's Marxist rhetoric and values.
They see the hypocrisy in being told about the benefits of letting go of material things by a Navy yes-man who enjoys the many perks of his position (and then some) by virtue of having been the skipper who finally moved the Pilín León tanker. They see the contradiction in being lectured about the ills of capitalism from people taking bribes for the necessary permits to move ships in and out of Venezuelan ports.
Venezuelans from every spectrum like to earn money and enjoy spending it, just like everybody else. They want to work and build a better future for themselves and their kids, just like everybody else. And yes, sometimes they like going out and buying themselves some McNuggets. The time will come when the madness of the Revolution will wake them up from their slumber, and they will realize their lives are changing for the worse and that liberty is worth fighting for.
Who knows, they may even use "Don't mess with my nuggets" as a rallying cry.