June 30, 2007

The Law as Talisman

Quico says: Megan, my co-everything on Law of the Land, and the person who really put the film together, promised to send in a post discussing her experience on the project. But I wanted to write one more thing about it before I hand off to her. If you haven't seen the documentary yet, have a look:

When we went out to Barinas, in December 2001, our goal was to document the impact of a new law on regular people's lives. Chávez had approved the new Ley de Tierras by decree, as part of his package of 47 decree-laws in November 2001, just days before we got there. I wanted to show how a leftist government could take the procedural mechanisms of bourgeois democracy and turn them on their head: using laws to overturn elite property rights rather than to uphold them.

Nothing could really have prepared me for the situation we found. Government officials talked about the new law all the time. Street hawkers were selling the little book all over Barinas City. It was the hot topic on local radio, and in everyone's conversation. But the more we looked for it, the more evanescent the new law became, the harder to pin down.

The two farm takeovers we show in the film flesh that out.

In the first farm, Campo Alegre, the initial land occupation happened before Chávez was even elected, and long before the Ley de Tierras had been conceived. Land reform here was happening "spontaneously," backed by the government's influence but not by any kind of legal sanction.

Nicolas Orta, the landowner, was especially flustered by this: he'd taken his case through the courts, and he'd won! He had a court ruling - a sentencia firme - ordering the police and the national guard to give him back his land. But he had no way of enforcing it. The pro-Chavez authorities would just laugh at him if he showed up with a piece of paper and told them they had to do what it said.

At the same time, the new Land Law really had no provisions aimed at regularizing the situation of the squatters who'd taken over his land. They could count on de facto support from the pro-Chavez authorities, but they had no way of getting a legal claim to the land they were farming. Juridically, they were in limbo. Only power kept them where they were.

But the more striking case is in the second half of the film. Santa Rita farm was exactly the kind of property the Land Law was supposed to target: large, devoted to ranching rather than farming, generating few jobs, and surrounded by landless and land-poor campesinos. If ever there was a chance to showcase the Ley de Tierras in action, this was it.

And yet, that's not how the government went about it. The takeover of Santa Rita farm was carried out entirely outside the procedures set out by the new law. Rogelio Peña tells us that the first indication he had that his farm was being targeted came when a bunch of soldiers showed up one day and seized it. It's not that the government cut corners on the due process clauses carefully set out in the new law, it's that they skipped the process altogether.

Rogelio knew that going to the courts to seek redress was a waste of time: all that courts can issue is an order, a piece of paper. And, in Barinas, the authorities reserved the same contempt for official papers as Gallegos's Doña Bárbara, a sort of outraged revulsion at the idea that "este papel, este pedazo de papel que yo puedo arrugar y volver trizas con mis manos" could overrule her will. The authorities in Barinas could not be compelled by tree pulp any more than Doña Bárbara could.

And here we come to the irony at the heart of the film: what really hurt opposition land owners, in the end, was not the Land Law itself, but rather its systematic violation by the government. What really greased the mechanism of land distribution was not the law that had been created expressly for that purpose, but rather the power to ignore it whenever it proved inconvenient.

In that light, the title Megan chose for the film is deeply ambivalent. What was the Law of this land? Certainly, there was one. There were norms in Obispos that everyone understood and nobody could break. But those norms were diffuse, tacit, evanescent. They resided in the will of the people with the uniforms and the guns, not in the little pamphlet you could buy for Bs.300 on the streets of Barinas.

And here we stare down a deep cultural chasm between the two sides, a kind of discursive abyss that divides them at the most fundamental level. For chavismo, authority never resides on paper. The whole notion of written law, of rules that are set down in the realm of official paper ("el mundo del papel sellado" in Teodoro Petkoff's evocative phrase) yet which have the power to constrain powerful men's actions, is abhorrent, deeply alien, simply Other.

The government understands power differently, as something that emanates from the barrel of a gun, from the loyalty of underlings, from diffuse norms of discipline or political kinship or primary identification that bind Chávez's supporters to their leader. Power, for chavismo, lives out in the open air of the spoken word, not in an artificial sphere constructed by writing.

The opposition, socialized in an entirely different worldview, had real trouble grasping this. Nicolas Orta, though dimly aware of the futility of it all, kept trudging down to the official institutions' offices in Barinas city, documents in tow, hanging on to the evanescent hope that rights set down in documents could be actualized. On Santa Rita farm, we see José Luis Betancourt pleading with an army officer clutching a stack of documents about the farm's legal status. Useless, of course, but revealing: something deep in the opposition psyche refuses to accept that the locus of power has shifted inexorably away from the written page.

The real mystery is that, despite all that, chavismo keeps on writing laws and constitutions and decrees and regulations, pushing them out in batches so large we barely have time to read them before they start ignoring them. This is a dynamic that has always mystified me. Even now I can't really say I quite grasp it. But if I'm forced to hazard a guess, it would go something like this:

What chavismo understands by law is radically detached from anything you might learn in law school. They don't see laws as compendia of binding rules; they see them as magical objects, able to bring about politically-desired outcomes independently of what they actually say.

In a sense, what interests them is the physicality of law, its incarnation in an object, a tiny little book that can be waved around, shown to the cameras, invoked rhetorically without ever needing to be opened or read, much less interpreted by an impartial judge. The law, in this mindset, is a talisman.

It bears stopping to consider the kind of language Chávez uses to speak about the constitution - or used to use, back when he carried it in his shirt pocket. "La bicha," "el librito azul," are tags that refer specifically to the constitution as thing, to the little book, to law as object, rather than to its content. It's the constitution's existence in the realm of things that chavismo constantly refers back to, never to its content.

Understood in that way, "law" isn't really law at all. Unenforceable, actualized only through the political leanings of the powerful and therefore endlessly malleable, the concept off law is deeply disfigured. It becomes an entelechy, a magical justification for the arbitrary exercise of state power rather than a safeguard against it.

Under Chávez, law has become its opposite.

June 28, 2007

Don't mess with my nuggets!

Katy says: "Our first speaker today is Dr. Eva Golinger, who will lecture us about the ills of neoliberalism."

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;
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.
The laundry list of everything the Revolution supposedly "isn't" but so clearly "is" made me chuckle.

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.

Law of the Land: the DVD Commentary, Minus the DVD!

Quico says: In case you missed it, yesterday I posted Law of the Land, a documentary about Chávez's Land Reform I made with Megan Folsom back in 2002 and 2003. It would probably make sense to watch it before you read this commentary. The video is an hour long, most of it is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Why the Law of the Land? Well, the project was born, back in 2001, out of frustration with the way the mainstream media was doing its job in Venezuela. By then, it was clear that the way journalism was being practiced was not really helping the whole society understand what was happening to itself. I had three peeves in particular in mind:
  1. Caracas-centricism. All the National Media was based in Caracas, and the journalism they present was overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, about Caracas. Newspapers often read as though Caracas and Venezuela were rough synonyms. Coverage of "the interior" was often confined to the crime blotter, and even then to the crime-blotter from a few other big cities. The countryside didn't exist in the National Press. The regional press, which to some extent picked up the slack, was way underfunded, hackish and seldom worth your time.
  2. Elite-centrism. A huge majority of what passed for journalism consisted of shoving microphones in front of important people and recording what they said. Normal people who were affected by national stories were almost never taken into account, and never received sustained attention. TV Studio politics were the order of the day, producing a version of national reality that was closed onto itself, and had weirdly little to say about what was happening in the country as actual people experienced it.
  3. Finally there's the more common complaint about editorial bias, the way oppo media never presented the Best Case the government had to make for itself and official media never presented the Best Case the opposition had to make for itself.
So we set out to try to avoid those pitfalls. The idea was to go out to the countryside and talk to normal people about how national events were affecting their everyday lives, and to do so without manipulation, allowing people to speak for themselves, to put their best case forward.

So we worked hard to get regular, likable, charismatic people to speak for each side, as well as pompous, dislikable, creepy people. For me, the real star of the show is Gilda, the chavista squatter on Campo Alegre farm, who (starting at 17:45 in the video) speaks with such passionate intensity about her life and what Chávez means to her that I almost turn chavista every time I see that clip. But we also hear that snakes-oil salesman of a chavista Cooperative Leader on Santa Rita farm towards the end, stumbling badly as he realizes we know he's lying to us. We see Nicolas Orta, the cartoonishly villainous owner of Campo Alegre brimming with class hatred for the people who took his land, but we also see Rogelio Peña and his campesino neighbors, people so plainly grounded in simple, sturdy values of friendship, hard work and mutual respect you can't help but admire them.

They're all there, and they're all real: neither side has a monopoly on goodness in Venezuela.

We wanted to jolt viewers - all viewers - out of the standard, caricaturish understanding of land conflict as a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys. We reject the standard Hollywoodesque framing of the story, with its easy moral certainties, its rejection of complexity, of the multiplicity of experiences and motivations that makes humans human. We wanted ambiguous characters, and I think we did a pretty good job getting them.

Gilda, probably the most likable character in the whole film, is nonetheless perfectly aware that she lives on stolen land. Rogelio, for all his soft-spoken good sense, however much his poor neighbors praise him, is an incredible fat cat and an AD político to boot. Even the Campo Alegre landowner, Nicolas Orta, can't help to strike a chord with anyone who's been mugged or had a car radio stolen - even while you can't help but hate his guts on-screen.

The point was to make both sides cringe a little, we wanted to confront everyone with an awareness of their own blindspots, as well as with the basic humanity of the other side, so often maligned and demonized.

Megan in particular was struck by the similarities we found between the two sides when we dug just beneath the hyperpolarized surface. When we went to hang out with them, both chavistas and opposition people treated us with the same respect, the same extravagant generosity, the same eagerness to tell their stories, the same underlying wish to just be left alone so they can make a living and the same pride in identifying themselves as agrarian producers, as campesinos. As somebody once said about Northern Ireland, "they are the same, but they are on different sides."

We were especially struck by the hospitality we received from all sides. We found it impossible to go out for a day's shoot without coming back loaded down with gifts: bananas, hallacas (we were shooting in December), oranges, lechozas, beer...whatever people had, they would give us, whether they were very poor or very rich, whether they were for Chávez or against him. I found those gestures deeply affecting, not to mention more than a bit embarrassing: nobody ever taught me what I'm supposed to do when someone who probably doesn't have quite enough to eat offers you food.

So when you peel away the layers of Caracas-centric, Elite-centric, media constructed reality, what you find was a country populated by mostly by perfectly normal, generous folk with perfectly normal concerns, trying to make a living the best way they knew how, and wishing they'd just be allowed to get on with it without interference. Which, when you stop to think about it, is not at all surprising.

Yet we also found, on both sides, people convinced that there is an evil, evil "Other" out there, an Other intent on hindering them, impoverishing them, taking away what is rightfully theirs, hurting their children, an amoral, conniving, thieving other that can't be reasoned with and so has to be subdued. Polarization may have been born in the Caracas TV Studio, but by the time we shot this film it had spread, acquired deep tentacles in society. That part was no longer just hype: polarization had become a real force in everyone's day to day lives.

Which brings us to the vexed question of the government and its role in all this. Now, unless you're a raging reactionary, I don't think there's any way you can deny that land tenure is a serious, real problem for the squatters on Campo Alegre, the first farm in the film. You just have to take one look at their kids, at the amount of work they put into farming land that isn't even theirs, to get a feel for how dire their alternatives must have been. You can quibble with the details - the scale, the importance in the overall scheme of things, etc. etc. - but you can't argue with the basic fact that these grievances are real.

But what we found, again and again, was a government determined to exploit those grievances to advance an ideological agenda and to favor politically loyal constituencies.

On Campo Alegre farm, in the first part of the film, none of the squatters had any intention at all to form a cooperative. But you want to talk about spontaneous participation? They had squatted as a group. They had certainly formed a community: they helped each other out all the time, gossiped about one another, hung out with each other, shared the good times and the bad, etc.

But they were clear that each squatter family had its own plot, and each plot was its "owner's" responsibility. Since they didn't want to form a cooperative, they essentially got no help at all from the government: no credit, no seed, no fertilizer, no tractors, nothing at all beyond a rear-guard action to keep the old landowner from harassing them.

So the conditionality on the government's actual assistance was clear, indeed explicit: adopt our idea about how you should organize production, do it our way, or say good-bye to official funding. They knew from personal experience that participatory democracy meant participating in the government's terms, not theirs. They felt the pressure to do as they were told, not as they themselves thought best. And yet, they were still intensely emotionally attached to the president.

The second farm takeover we covered, on Rogelio Peña's Santa Rita farm, was a contrast on every level. Here the government did impose its cooperative ideal...it's just that this marvel of participatory democracy didn't seem to have any participants! We just couldn't find any evidence at all that the cooperative existed outside the realm of official paper. The tractors were there, and the fertilizer, and the soldiers for protection and lots and lots of good land...the only thing missing was the farmers.

From what we could gather - we couldn't check this directly, simply because we never managed to locate any of these alleged cooperative members - the "landless peasants" who benefited from the official face of land reform were politically connected city people, weekend farmers who turned up for a bit of farm work a few times a year and then collected their share of their cooperative labor in the form of a check. Basically it was just clientelism - branded with a sickle and a hammer, sure, but clientelism all the same. It's hardly surprising that the poor campesinos living immediately around Santa Rita were distinctly non-plussed.

Too often, Chávez critics are seen as simple reactionaries, people determined to deny that the grievances of Venezuela's poor are real. But I don't think anyone could watch the film and deny that the grievances of the poor in Obispos are very real indeed.

Our critique of the government is different. It's a government gives every sign of being more interested in exploiting campesinos' grievances for political benefit than in acting pragmatically to redress them. When the government does act, it acts through a strange melding of Marxist orthodoxy and old-style clientelism that is miles apart from what its constituents need or want or would choose if they were ever consulted, which they aren't.

Well, there's much more I could write about the video - and probably will. After all, we spent months slaving over the thing. But maybe I should leave it here for now.

June 26, 2007

Law of the Land

Quico says: Loyal readers know that back in 2002 and 2003 I fancied myself a documentary film-maker. Along with my friend Megan, we made this hour-long thing on the Ley de Tierras and the takeover of two farms in Obispos, in Barinas state. Since we weren't able to sell it, we decided to put it online:

It's funny, we edited it in 2004, but it already looks dated. It's ironic now to think that, just three years ago, we felt obliged to clarify that "Chávez says he's not a Marxist..." Heh.

Anyway, here it goes:

June 25, 2007

Now more than ever

Katy says: It seems like the thing everyone wants to know about is the new Vargas Viaduct. Well, it's fine, a perfectly normal, ordinary piece of engineering that simply replaces something that was there before.

I know chavistas are going to think that I'm being stingy on my praise, but to be honest, I don't see the big deal. Yes, it's a big improvement from the infamous "trocha", and yes, it appears to be well made - not up to the standards these non-engineer eyes observe in the first world, but well made nonetheless.

I guess the thing I have to admire the most is that they finished it on time. I was very skeptical that this was going to be the case, but it seems like the Copa America put some needed extra pressure on the chavistas. Now if only Conmebol could pressure the government to lower inflation, or the crime rate, or improving education, or building more housing, or respecting democracy, or ...

But as with all things chavista, there was a thing or two that reminded me that, even at their best, they are still just not right. The first is that chavistas decided the division of the viaduct (the concrete mounds that divide the inbound lanes from the outbound ones) was the ideal place for a succession of billboards advertising Venezuela's tourism. So instead of admiring the bridge or - gasp - paying attention to the car in front of them, drivers' vision is drawn to the nice pictures of Angel Falls, the Llanos or, erm, the Morros in San Juan (my reaction was the same) passing them in succession to their left.

I guess we should be thankful that the ads were non-political, much in the same way one should be thanful for not being killed in one of Caracas' frequent home-jackings. But still - don't chavistas know that you shouldn't place ads in places where they will distract the driver's vision?

The bridge has obviously made traffic to and from Vargas flow more fluidly, which is not something I can say of the rest of this inhuman, insane city that looms so large in our nostalgia. Still, there was no need for the billboard announcing the entrance to the new viaduct: "Vargas, now closer than ever!" No, Hugo, now closer than a year and a half ago, when your negligence caused this mess in the first place. Go lie some place else.

The driver took the Cota Mil to get me to where I'm staying, which landed us in an insane traffic jam, commonplace these days every hour of every day. As I thought about Chavez, about the poverty you still see on the streets and about the crazy economy, I saw a ficus plant, a meter and a half tall, growing from the cracks of the Altamira viaduct in the Cota Mil. Some day, trees will grow from the new Viaduct as well. That plant reminded me that I was home.