November 30, 2003

Email volley with a lefty on a night of heady optimism in Caracas

> > People who display the
> > slightest whiff, the merest suggestion of disagreement with Chavez,or
> > even those who choose a nuanced version of agreement, are rapidly and
> > reliably expelled from the chavista sect. Its autocratic verticalism is
> > the polar opposite of democratic pluralism, of pluralistic
> > decision-making. And that is what many of us in the opposition cannot,
> > will not, and ought not to swallow, Paul. And, we won't.
> While I actually tend to agree with this description of many Chavistas,
> this also sounds like your own description of the opposition. So, in the
> end, what makes the opposition, to which you seem to count yourself, any
> better than the Chavistas?


If this is the impression I give of the opposition, I did not make myself clear. My point is precisely the opposite. The chavistas and the opposition are fundamentally different. The government's political vision is, at bottom, sectarian and exclusive, committed to a single acceptable line of thought consisting largely of whatever chavez said in his latest speech. In stark contrast, the opposition is impossibly, maddeningly diverse. There is a multitude of voices, positions, and points of view, a dizzying number of formal organizations, a spectrum of ideological currents, and - crucially - vibrant debate between them. Chavismo and the opposition have about as much in common as an order and a conversation.

Of course, the government normally attacks on the opposite flank, making fun of the opposition's fractiousness, its seeming ungovernability, its multiplicity, and contrasting it with the "strength" they think they derive from their unified, clear chain of command - which runs through a single vector from Chavez to everyone else.

The observation is correct, but their interpretation is backwards. The opposition thrives on diversity; Chavez cannot tolerate it. He is terrified of dissent, unable on a psychological level to deal with an opinion different from his own, patently unable to withstand any sort of criticism. Chavez, like any pathological narcissist, is deaf to the world around him. The opposition has to listen, because it is not monolithic, its positions are not predetermined. Instead, they have to be agreed through dialogue and debate between many different groups on a case by case basis. This is a source of strength, not weakness.

The opposition's diversity is real, both socially and ideologically. If you are right wing and middle or upper class, there are several parties for you to choose from, from COPEI to Primero Justicia to Proyecto Venezuela, but if you're more working class and more centrist you also have a certain number of options, from AD and Alianza Bravo Pueblo on the conservative end of the spectrum to Causa R, Solidaridad and Union on the left. And if you are a proper trotskyite marxist and you want to oppose Chavez, well there is ALSO a place for you in the Coordinadora democr?tica - as the kids from Bandera Roja have found out. And if you think there is not enough balance in the media, there's even an NGO for you! The opposition is just as broad and varied as Venezuela is!

Necessarily this means they don't all agree on everything all the time. But what they do all agree on is one basic principle: that they will respect those who disagree with them, remain open to dialogue towards them and work towards building minimal agreements with them. They understand the need to work for consensus across ideological lines. This, in my view, is the fundamental difference between the two sides: the opposition has the unruliness of real democracy about it. The opposition understands compromise and consensus building as healthy democratic activities. By contrast, chavismo is a straightjacket that rigidly binds millions of people to parrot the views of a pathological narcissist from day to day.

It's hardly surprising. How much intelligence and coherence is it really reasonable to expect from a cult of personality built around a man of faltering psychiatric stability? I mean, really.

The structure of chavismo is very badly suited to developing the habits mind and patterns of citizen interaction likely to yield a vibrant democracy. I cannot have a frank, horizontal, equal-to-equal, citizen-to-citizen debate with you if I'm pledged to blind obedience to a political line I have no part in formulating! Only open democratic debate predicated on a basis of equality and respect for differences can foster the kinds of social interaction that sustain democracy in the long run. Formal recognition of the other, of the other's right to dissent, and the willingness to reach principled compromises with the other are central features of any vibrant democracy. The opposition understands this. The government - that is, Chavez - fundamentally does not.

(and don't bother writing in to point out George W. Bush doesn't understand this either - doubtlessly true, but entirely beside the point here!)

So Greg, to me, there is a world of difference between the opposition and Chavez. Not because the opposition is perfect and wonderful and blameless, no! The venezuelan opposition is just as much filled with human folly and error as any other enterprise this absurd species of ours might choose to pursue. But it is also far bigger than that, sustained ultimately by ideals that are much more noble than that and will, in due time, lead to the restoration of pluralistic decision-making and democratic normalcy to Venezuela. And this, I know for certain, cannot happen if Chavez stays in power.

I realize that there is no guarantee that the end of the Chavez era will lead to the end the era of mass impoverishment in Venezuela. The country has been getting poorer for 25 years now, and Chavez is only to answer for the final 5 of those. But it is near-certain that keeping Chavez would mean ongoing impoverishment. People can sense that on the streets, Greg, and this is why they're lining up to sign for the recall.

Watching the coverage of the weekend's action on globovision over the internet was instructive. For one thing, it's clear that the station has toned down its content very dramatically. The endless anti-government commercial sprees are gone. Rough equality in air time is ensured between pro and anti-government spokesmen. It is true that the the pro-chavez interviewees inevitably have a rougher ride than their counterparts - a phenomenon due largely, I think, to the more-than-justified anger of the individual interviewers at standard chavista obfuscation tactics and flat out lies. It's only a shame they're not as tough on the opposition interviewees, not that they're so tough on the chavistas. But the days of the totally one sided opposition media are, for the moment at least, not quite true.

For another thing, following on my exchange with Paul, I watched the lines of people waiting to sign paying close attention to people's skin color. What I realized is what I knew all along - there were huge numbers of brown and black people signing against the government this weekend alongside many whites. Black and brown faces regularly spoke on behalf of the opposition coalition, as well as for the government.

In fact, it occurs to me that if you went up to anyone standing in those effortlessly racially mixed lines waiting to sign all over the country and you tried to explain to those people that there are two leftwing irish film makers who think the struggle against the president is one of white vs. black, the idea would seem little more than absurd to the vast majority of them. Not so much right or wrong as just incomprehensible, would not compute. I understand that race is deeply politicized in the US and Europe, it is hard for me to understand why my American and European friends refuse to believe me when I tell them it is not similarly politicized in Venezuela!

(but this, doubtlessly, is a subject for a separate entry.)

Overall, the race-struggle theory of Venezuelan politics is about as credible as Jose Vicente Rangel's obscene suggestion that the TV images of long lines all over the city waiting to sign were staged, fake, computer generated, "virtual" was his word. Sickening.

My favorite moment on Globovision today was the shots of people waiting in line to sign, who were holding little hand-drawn signs reading simply "No soy virtual." I am not virtual. To me, that little sign, that little retort to Rangel, encapsulates so much of the opposition's deep and justified exasperation. They are not really asking for that much, not really. All that sign says, ultimately, is I am a real person. I want to be taken into consideration as a citizen. I want to be recognized. I want those in power to accept I exist.

(Remember when all this started? December 10th, 2001? Remember that day, Greg? All that the opposition was really asking even back then was to be recognized, to be consulted on the changing of the 49 decree-laws handed down through the enabling law! (God, seems like eons ago! But it's been just two years ago!) The funny thing is that the government's reaction back then was the same as it is now: the ostrich with its head in the sand. Back then they mocked us, they called us escualidos, they refused to accept we exist. Nothing has changed! And the same cycle of anger and frustration at non-recognition followed by increased militancy followed by renewed determination on the part of the government NEVER to recognize the opposition that has built up the pressure-cooker of anger and frustrations that poured out onto the streets to sign today, with their little 'no soy virtual' handbills...)

The other thing that seems to have escaped most commentators about this remarkable weekend in Venezuela is the sheer irony of it. For 3 years between 1998 and 2001 we heard NOTHING out of Chavez but paeans for citizens participation, for direct democracy, for the idea that the people owned the country, and should therefore run it. It was the whole reason for electing him!

Today, that kind of rhetoric has disappeared completely from the president's rhetorical repertoire. Oddly, just as Chavez shut up about it, it started to happen, on the streets. And why? Because the message has been totally co-opted by the opposition, that's why! Swallowed and digested whole!

This may be the single positive aspect of Chavez's legacy: while his own government was a shocking failure, the ideology of radical people power that first propelled him to miraflores is becoming a part of our political culture, it seems to be geting integrated into the nation's shared common sense, into its civic DNA. Chavez really has made us more democratic, but not in anything like the way he imagined!

But look out in the streets, Greg! Wasn't this what the revolution was supposed to be about in the first place? La revolucion participativa y protagonica? Remember that? Has chavismo really grown so far from its original idealistic roots that it cannot even begin to understand that its vision has become a reality, only on the other side of the political divide? Can it really not see that all the opposition is doing is fleshing out the ideological vision that Chavez originally conceived? Strange twists, my friend, strange twists takes the path of politics in a place like Venezuela. La revolucion bonita indeed!

Chavismo is today the victim of nothing so much as Chavez the man. As the leader's narcissistic delirium deepened, he carried his movement down with him. The end result was the strange kind of collective paranoid delusion that is chavismo today. Pledged to follow blindly the whims of a leader who has lost his marbles, the political movement itself is suffering from a kind of collective insanity. This is what happens to personality cults right before they implode!

Honestly, Greg, have an honest look at the chavismo that exists today, on November 30, 2003, and tell me the heavy air of historic failure and confusion doesn't hang around the proyecto's neck like a ball-and-chain? Just look at the way they behave! Look at the constant conspiracy theorizing on channel eight, look at the obsession with counter-revolutionaries, spies and enemies that is such a sadly predictable feature of autocratic political systems. (To my mind there are shades of Stalin and Trujillo here, in terms of the psychological mechanism of pervasive suspicion, finger-pointing and betrayal, if thankfully not in terms of the level of violence applied to counter it.)

If you've been watching channel 8 for the last couple of days, you must have some sense of the way the chavista leadership has followed the president, lemming-like, over the psychiatric cliff-edge and into a state of generalized paranoia. It's a serious issue, man, I really don't mean to render it glib. They believed their own propaganda to the bitter end, and it brought them to the current impasse. In a few days, CNE will announce more than 3.8 million signatures have been collected for a referendum that only requires 3.78 million votes to toss the guy out, and chavismo has never developed any kind of discourse to prepare its followers to hear that news, to assimilate it and accept it and live with it. what? How will they react? How will they reconcile that announcement with the narcissitic fantasy that has been so carefully built around Chavez?

One can only hope common sense wins out in the end and nobody tries to do anything rash that could lead to violence. At the moment, I am very optimistic. But ultimately, the country cannot accept a situation where a paranoid sect controls every nook and corner of the state. It's just not a sustainable situation, Greg: surely, on some level, you must realize this is so...

OK, again, this email/post is too long. Durn. Concision: not my strong point! But I feel this odd need to write about Venezuela these's hard to explain, it's just very exciting to follow the news of the reafirmazo over the just seems like there's this air of heady optimism down there, and I'm really bummed I'm not there to experience it first hand. And, of course, I love the email from readers/friends/sisters, so bring it on!

[The email address is caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm, by the way, NOT dot com...]

Rejoinder to this post from, hands down, my favorite US lefty...

In response to your last, er, relapse, I'm not sure that the fact that W can't conceive of a "loyal opposition" is all that beside the point. In fact, the Bushies' sneaky and radical revision of American rules of play has some eerie parallels with Chavez's. Not quite as egregious, better spun, not as bold-faced, but I think that drawing parallels with Bush is an excellent way to make the point for your lefty U.S. readers. (Speaking of a rapidly polarizing citizenry, check out the poll graphs at

I'm in the middle of reading Krugman's latest tome ("The Great Unraveling" - if these "anger lit" titles get any cheesier they're going to have to start serving wine at the readings.) He quotes Henry Kissinger's doctoral dissertation, of all things:

"Back to Kissinger. His description of the baffled response of established powers in the face of a revolutionary challenge works equally well as an account of how the American political and media establishment has responded to the radicalism of the Bush administration over the past two years:

'Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane.... But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusions.'

As I said, this passage sends chills down my spine, because it explains so well the otherwise baffling process by which the administration has been able to push radical policies through, with remarkably little scrutiny or effective opposition."

Of course, Chavez has always billed his regime change as a revolution, and thus an attack on the "existing legitimacy." The problem is that the social order people thought they were voting to overturn - clientelism, the "petrostate" as you put it, general political indifference toward the plight of the poor - was far different from the social order the chavistas actually want to overturn - basically, the entire framework of due process and democratic accountability. And when the bait and switch became evident, people got seriously pissed off.

Much the same with the Bushies - tax cuts for the superrich packaged as tax relief for the middle class, a pre-emptive war packaged as a response to an imminent threat, a basic strategy of responding to criticism with outright denial of the facts, or refusal to answer the question. It's so clear, so obvious, to your average North American lefty, that Bush's noble, homespun rhetoric has absolutely no connection to what he's
actually doing in office. It's clear, too, that the few social-welfare projects Bush claims to be interested in (AIDS efforts in Africa, for instance) are actually run by well-intentioned grassroots people who, whether they realize it or not, have priorities very different from his - and will probably end up getting half the funding they were promised during the initial photo-op.

And yet, the equivalent situation in Venezuela is not at all clear and obvious - U.S. lefties fall for the noble, homespun rhetoric and social-welfare photo ops all the time. Now I know my country's politics bore you, but I do think hammering home the similarities between our respective leadership's baits and switches is the best way to discredit the chavista rhetoric. "George W. Bush" is a code for "propaganda" that
we understand.


Rejoinder to the rejoinder
It's not that US politics bore me, it's just that they baffle me, and upset me...