Most of the time I hope to not arrive at conclusions. Siting the intellectual finish line tends to take the fun out of the race. But sometimes–Waddyagonna do? If there is a conclusion to what I’m going to go through right now, it’s that Venezuela has seen the end of the Chávez regime’s usefuleness. Tio Hugo, you’ve gone the way of all the Earth. We’ll see you in the sweet by and by. We’ll all be there soon enough. I realize that the “Chávez” government is gonzo, but, this is clearly not the “Maduro” government we’re talking about. So, while I’ll shorthand it by always calling it the Chávez era, or Chavismo, you’ll know that I know that he’s not currently president. But I digresss.
I don’t arrive at that conclusion (that Chavismo should go the way) easily, if at all, because like I said, mostly I avoid pigeonholing myself with hard and fast conclusions. I wouldn’t want to be pegged as a “pitiyanqui” if I were Venezuelan, but neither do I wish to join the body of typically sound journalists and thinkers amongst the American left (where my conservative friends usually slot me) for whom Chávez, and the Revolución Bolivariano can simply can do no wrong. (Here’s an article that speaks from one bias about another).
Then again, there might be another conclusion that I reach, and that might be that there are rarely if ever any answers that are simultaneously worthwhile and simple. Not to the really important questions anyway. What to have for breakfast? Easy: Pão de Queijo and Toddynho. How to end poverty and undo the negative externalities (that are incidentally not that “external”) of capitalism? Not easy: Because, for starters, what would I do for Toddynho?The fact is, there are way too many strict dichotomies in the way Americans talk about almost everything, and it was precisely getting past the dumb dichotomy of “Chavez is the Empire Bucking Revolutionary Savior of South America” on the one hand and “Chavez is a Despotic Ignoramus and a Threat to Hemispheric Stability” on the other.
My wife was living in eastern Venezuela when Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998. Since then she has introduced me to the life she had there and I have made lifelong friends of her dear friends across the country. These friends—from Maracaibo, San Felix, Carupano, Caracas, even Santa Elena de Uirén—have no common ideology, no shared political vision, but the one thing they all share is that they could have done what so many Venezuelans who don’t identify with the Chávez government have done in the past fifteen or so years and left for greener pastures. But, to the person, they love Venezuela, so they have chosen to stay.
It’s easy to see why they love it. So much natural beauty. Just pure richness. And so many wonderful people. That’s just a fact. Even the young lady from the National Guard who started trying to shake us down on a cross-country bus trip seemed nice enough. Venezuela is, and has been for perhaps it’s whole history, up to its Caribbean coast in problems, but Chávez was not the answer in 1998 and continues to not be the answer.
Before having gone to Venzuela I had followed reporting by independent journalists like Democracy Now and, Free Speech Radio News, I had seen the hobby journalism of Sean Penn and Oliver Stone. And of course, there was no avoiding the allegations of tyranny and despotism–the prevailing media message, reaching hysteria at the right end of the spectrum, which bore weight on the presupposition of Chavez’s loose screws and narcissism. (Including Pat Robertson’s call to assassinate Chavez before he turns our dear Hemisphere into a hellscape full of Commies and Islamic terrorists. Also, the old “Axis of Evil” addenda, emphasized by the National Review cover featuring Castro and Chávez as the “Axis of Evil, Western Hemisphere Version.”
As an aside, It’s noteworthy that that cover story was written by Otto Reich, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W Bush, and had been Ambassador to Venezuela during the presidencies of Jaime Lusinchi a darling of the Reagan Presidency, and worked in Latin American relations under both Presidents Bush. Especially notably, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the April 2002 coup that temporarily ousted Chávez, and while the American government declared Reich guiltless of undue involvement, the Guardian told a different version. American news outlets, however, have rarely strayed from the Despot of the South narrative that radiates out from the centers of American power.
I don’t disagree with that assessment. I mean, even though I’ll own up to the tingle of schadenfreude when Chávez smelled sulfur, crossing himself from the lectern of the General Assembly, clearly it’s not the most statesmanlike behavior. It wasn’t even all that clever. But our media made serious hay with comments like that (“Oh. Oh dear. Do you hear? He called our guy the devil. No. Not. But… Can you believe? Of all the underhanded… I have never, in my life…”) By the 2008 election McCain felt confident enough in Chávez’s insanity that even mentioning that Obama would consider “sitting down” with him was discredit enough to Obama’s fitness to lead. But, then again, you know it’s more than just home-team pep-rally jingoism speaking when Amnesty International is repeatedly busting Venezuela’s chops for press clampdowns, and Human Rights Watch is barking up the Bolivarian tree for agglomerating power.
If you followed current events in any capacity for the past decade in these United States, you knew few things better than the proof: If Chávez, then Bad Guy. And then again, I’ll let you go through the expansive Wikipedia entry on Chávez to sort out the good stuff he did, and it’s not insignificant, including programs to control food prices, bolster public health, subsidize housing, distribute state oil revenues, and generally alleviate poverty. By 2008 poverty rates had plummeted from the 1998 level of over 55% to 28%. Now that is insane.
But what could go wrong has gone wrong. Inflation is soaring (they always say “soaring” for inflation), and public safety is in shambles. It’s worse now, but when I was in Venezuela in 2009, it looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. And not in the “you’re not in the US anymore” sort of way, but in the “broken social contract” sort of way. To give an example, I saw what you might consider a small thing, but it blew my mind at the time. I saw a cute little old lady drinking a beer outside a makeshift bar near cluster of “ranchos” (the Venezuelan word for informal housing that often gets used for government subsidized housing as well). She had to be in her late seventies. Good and old enough to know better. But at the last swill of beer, she casually chucked the can over her shoulder.
That is the very small symptom of a broken social contract. In the split second that occurred, I thought of my own grandmother and how I would have never in a million years seen her do something like that. But in the same thought (you know how that works, it all just zaps through your head), I didn’t blame that old lady: Have you ever noticed how after a big event there’s always garbage on the ground. Anywhere in the world. Doesn’t matter–after the first few people have failed to pick up their litter, no one else feels bad about throwing more. If there’s a leadership of tidiness, it will stay fairly tidy. Most people, don’t want to be the first to screw things up. But if things are already perceptibly screwed up, that changes the psychology. The social contract is broken.
Which brings me to a not small, the biggest not small, evidence of a broken social contract: The murder rate. It’s been quoted a great deal lately, and it has not gotten any less shocking with each iteration. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates that there were 24,763 homicides in 2013, having risen steadily over the past fifteen years from 10 per 100,000 people to 79 per 100,000 people, and evidently some 90% go unsolved. And it may just start with the Chávez Regime: “In 2010, the Ministry of Interior and Justice reported 3,482” so-named “resistence to authority deaths.” Three and a half THOUSAND people! In a year! And that’s the ones that got reported and recorded. Those of us leery of power’s ability to corrupt, must wonder, how many are there that didn’t make the scoresheet? Could this relate to my theory about the social contract? Does the psychology of litter carry over in such a way?
What about in other ways? For all the time spent in American media talking about how crazy Chávez was, he didn’t help himself with those batty rants on national TV. The Aló Presidente show had no fixed programming time, was mostly ad libbed, and would run for some 6 hours at a time. Being from the American West may betray my prejudice for verbal thrift, but if you’re talking for six hours at a time, you simply run out of useful things to say. And much of that time was spent railing against the oppressor. “Ser rico és malo!” (“Being rich is bad!”) coupled with “El imperialismo es la más grande amenaza que tiene hoy el planeta Tierra” (“Imperialism is the largest threat to the planet Earth today.”) is a pretty toxic combo when addressing the body politic of Chavistas, most of whom are poor, and under Chavez, reliant on government help.
And it’s not that I necessarily disagree with either of those sentiments. The issue is simply the consistent preying upon and exploiting the baser instincts of the voting population (voting poor), in order to maintain an evil enemy, and thus maintain the justification for his own power. When we demonize or dehumanize anyone, it becomes that much easier to then victimize them. Think racial slurs for enemy troops in war, defining slaves as partially or incompletely human, etc. I can’t help but think the explosion of murders is not closely linked with the explosion in ransom kidnappings (9000 per year as of 2009). As kidnapping victim German Garcia-Velutini told NPR, his initial interaction with his kidnappers “was a set of instructions, such as not to yell or pound on the doors [resistance might translate to a shared human instinct and thus make things emotionally messier], and a list of questions, including ‘How much are you worth? ‘[It] is a terrible question because if you are kidnapped [for] political reasons, you have some principles that you can stand by,” he says. ‘Money doesn’t have principles. You’re merchandise.'”
It’s commonly accepted, from kindergarten play time to social science, those we don’t empathize with, we dehumanize. This is not outside the box thinking. We talk about it here at favelissues all the time: social and economic marginalization, othering, etc. The social contract is already broken. Even if only in perception. Perhaps, in some people’s perception, the rich deserve to be kidnapped, because they broke the social contract already. We don’t like to be consciously the first one to break it, but once it’s broken the perception of such is what matters.
As I said at the beginning, I hope I don’t get pigeonholed by my own thoughts. If you have any insights, I’d love to hear them. I’m just thinking out loud here. On the one hand I don’t mind showing you a picture of my daughters and I at the SOS Venezuela rally last weekend. I didn’t mind teaching Frankie, up on my shoulders, “No nos da la gana tener una dictadura igualita a la cubana!” Because, as my friend reently said, “A dictator is a dictator is a dictator.” A press clampdown is a press clampdown. 3,482 “resistance to authority” deaths is 3,482 too many. And on another hand (not “the” other hand, since they’re seem to me more related than dichotomous opinions), I don’t mind joining my voice to Maduro’s in saying, “Viva la Revolucion Bolivariana! Viva Venezuela!” Let’s just get it right, huh?