Sunday, November 13, 2005

Caracas Dispatch

From our man on the ground in Venezuela, Helmut, here are a couple of e-mailed dispatches (compiled and edited just a bit):

I met some [among the opposition] at a Polar reception [Thursday] night. [A former Finance Minister] introduced me to all sorts of interesting people, though the whole thing was pretty much high-society, lots of clearly inherited money there. I've mostly met opposition people here from the universities and from high society -- the opposition is from the left and the right, but even the right is socially conscious comparatively. They're realistic, but no one likes Chavez. I haven't met any Chavez people until, hopefully, tonight. The opposition is trying to build bridges with the Chavez government. It's complex and there's a lot to say on this, but I can only explain it briefly here. Chavez is an important event for the country in many ways, although he has garnered nearly absolute power. VZ has had two hundred years of an elite European-descended class mostly running the country, while the poor (mainly indigenous people, former black slaves, and mestizos) languished. Chavez has turned this on its head by being elected by the poor.

He does indeed have a lot of Catsro-style bluster, and his main ideological advisors are three radical leftist intellectuals from Germany and Hungary, but he's also trying to build social programs to take people out of poverty -- education, hospitals, housing. Things that the poor, the majority, haven't had. Yet, poverty has increased five percent, and Chavez is trying to develop a new measure of poverty to hide this. Guys like the former Finance Minister, who's an opposition member, understand all this and say that Venezuelan society is now reaping what it has sown. But while the Chavez government has all the power and enormous wealth from oil, it doesn't really have the know-how. They can build 10,000 houses per year for the poor while they should be at a rate of 200,000. Some opposition members see this as a potential bridge between the opposition and the Chavez government -- to draw on the know-how of the educated, high-tech, elite class that forms much of the opposition. I've been watching this before coming to Venezuela and came to similar conclusions, though I enjoy his jabs at Bush, so the former Finance Minister and I see eye-to-eye. But the Chavez government is still resentful for the history of oppression, and with absolute power doesn't have to speak with the opposition.

So, it's both of moment of great potential -- I think globally historical potential -- and a moment of tentative bridge-building. So far it's not going so well. The worst case scenario is civil war, and it's a very real possibility, especially (I think) if the US govt gets further involved in its support for the opposition and acts further on its anti-Chavez policies. The best-case scenario could be a real ground-breaking model for democratic and just governance in the developing world. It's a very exciting time here. Even momentous. If the bridge-building succeeds, we could see a country of wealth and beauty and intelligence form a just democratic society on its own terms.

I was invited here to lecture on John Dewey's conception of experimental democracy -- which has roots in Jefferson's thought, Darwin's notion of adaptation, and general scientific method as a way of going about figuring out most intelligently what's good for a pluralistic society in a globalizing world. I see all the potential here. Others see it too. There's great potential for experimental democracy (I, like Dewey and Jefferson, view democracy as an always unfinished project because history always presents new challenges, not something where you get some basic institutions like the vote and you're all done). I can think of no better place in the world right now to be than Venezuela for thinking through these issues, and looking at real practices, and thinking about the potential beyond genuine bridge-building between different groups in society. It's really fascinating.

But tonight [Friday] I met with my very first real Chavista, a government Vice-Minister. We went to a bar in Sabana Grande, a politically mixed part of Caracas, for tapas and drinks. An interesting man, also very intelligent and full of ideas. Chavez may be a demagogue -- this just isn't clear to me (or lots of people here) -- but one thing I think is becoming clear to me. He has given dignity to the poor. He speaks to the majority of the country in this way: You are real citizens too. You are intelligent too. You are capable of great things too. You can aspire to more than you have. It's important -- even if material well-being lags behind, the symbolic gesture of providing dignity to the mass of the public is crucially important for a country that wants to be a decent place. There's all this revolutionary rhetoric and so on, and a lot of anger (the symbolic gesture of the Chavista is the right fist pounding the open left hand), but the Vice-Minister was very careful to listen to me tonight on the kind of pragmatist democracy I think about -- the kind that transcends political party rhetoric and class structure and looks at what an intelligent democracy can be. We also had a fun time making light of Bush. I had the opportunity to call him a "Bushista" when he told me about trying to eliminate advertising of beer and tobacco in public places (and remember that Polar is most well-known as the Budweiser of Venezuela). He told me about regional projects they're working on -- supplying energy to northern Brazil, for example (which is easier than getting it from southern industrialized Brazil). It's a less grandiose way of thinking about developing cooperative networks of trade. I think the country is overflowing with ideas. Still, there's the divide. The opposition is multileveled -- from both the right (worried about preserving a way of life) and the left (worried about the consolidation of power). So much opportunity to build bridges . . .

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