Friday, December 02, 2005

Venezuela, compare contrast

As mentioned below, I spent most of November in Venezuela at the invitation of Andrés Bello Católica University and the Polar Foundation (both of which are terrific institutions, which happen to be centers of opposition). There's an earlier update from Caracas here that Barba kindly edited from my emails in my absence. I've also briefly discussed the bizarre boycott of elections by the opposition. This Sunday, Chávez's party will take control of congress due largely to the opposition boycott (the media, which is mostly opposition, calls on anti-Chávez voters to go to church instead).

So, now, some more on Venezuela. I'll write some about the opposition in this post and more later on Chávez and "The Process."

As I've repeatedly mentioned, Venezuela is politically polarized. It's much more severe than the political polarization that exists in the US. One's choice of beer at a bar is a political choice. One begins to wonder what it is okay to say in public and what is not. I spent the first week mostly with opposition leaders, intellectuals, students and professors, and former government ministers. The second week was spent more with Chávez people, including a government minister, people in poor neighborhoods (ranchos), and young idealistic government functionaries.

My overall impression after several weeks there is that despite the revolutionary Bolivarian rhetoric, there are a lot of good ideas in the Chávez camp and openness to new ideas. One of the papers I gave on democracy and globalization is being translated and then delivered to The Boss himself. I also found an intellectual dynamism among the intellectuals and former government officials on the opposition side. Everyone across the board was warm and welcoming at a personal level. But when it came down to it, I was more intellectually welcomed by the Chávez side than by the opposition even though my lectures and talks were heavily critical of both technical elitist expert-run government on one hand and authoritarian revolutionary government on the other. I'm a pragmatist democrat in the Deweyan experimentalist tradition which makes me a critic of pretty much every extant form of democratic government and certainly of non-democratic government. This message created waves at a private lecture I gave that was sponsored by opposition leaders and given to 40 of the "top intellectuals" of Venezuela. I'm not going to get much sympathy here, but I had been offered the use of the richest man in Venezuela's (the CEO of Polar, Lorenzo Mendoza, a cool guy) private jet for a week of vacationing around the country. This was nixed by intermediaries after my lecture at Polar. I went from flying by private jet to the Mendoza home in the Amazon and out to the coral islands to sleeping on an overnight bus to the Andes.

The same ideas were welcomed as healthy criticism by a Chávez government minister over several glasses of wine on a couple of different occasions. We had friendly arguments, but the key was the ear I was given. Many in the opposition quit listening the moment I made the heavily qualified statement (I'm only an outside observer, there are other reasons for concern about Chávez, etc.) that "one thing that Chávez has done is give a sense of dignity and citizenship to the poor." I stand by that.

The opposition claims that Chávez is a dictator engaged in populist propaganda for his support by an uneducated poor class (the majority of the country is poor). He is an authoritarian seeking absolute power. And he has such power already at present that he decides whether one keeps one's property or not, whether the country trades with another country or not, whether it is officially nighttime or daytime. They claim that because the poverty rate has risen by five percent over Chávez's six-year presidency that Chávez is now seeking to rewrite how poverty is measured so that his government looks better. So, his main message of helping the poor is a sham. In their more candid moments ("it's the wine speaking"), they'll say that Chávez's government is basically inefficient. They can build 10,000 new houses per year for the poor with Venezuela's tremendous petroleum wealth, whereas they should be at a rate of 200,000 per year. This could be accomplished by drawing upon the opposition class' education, training, and know-how. But Chávez refuses to deal with them. Even more candidly ("another bottle of wine -- this one [Canepas] was once recommended to me by the president of Chile"), some opposition members go into self-blame mode claiming that Chavez is the result of their own decades-old abuses, that in Chávez Venezuela is reaping what the opposition has sowed.

On the other hand, some in the opposition also claim that Chávez really only has 5% support among the Venezuelan population. The claim is that Chávez so absolutely controls the country that he has created the appearance that he has widespread support. If you ask about the elections, which are democratic, and how Chávez wins them, some in the opposition will claim that the elections are entirely rigged. The 5% claim is pure conspiracy theory, and a cursory glance at the country and chatting with local people proves otherwise. Chávez is adored by most of the poor in Venezuela and many in the intelligentsia, especially those based at Simon Bolívar University. A walk around some of the government offices shows a huge number of young, well-educated people working for The Process.

I asked about American involvement in support of the opposition. This is, of course, a touchy subject and a difficult one to broach. The only answer I received was that the National Endowment for Democracy -- always with its hands in the affairs of Latin America and elsewhere -- had given $70,000 to help monitor the elections. That's it. But I also taught a faculty seminar in a downtown building of meeting rooms. Taking place one day in the room next to ours was an exam for working for the CIA. A couple of young Americans were running the exam. This is about all I could gather explicitly in my inquiries about US involvement in the attempted coup and ongoing shenanigans. I met Eva Golinger, author of the best-selling (in Venezuela) book "The Chávez Code." She is a leftist activist advising the government who claims to have documented CIA involvement, but I'll leave discussion of this for a later post. Most of it, I believe, is nonsense.

One final word for this post.... The opposition is scattered and in a state of disunity. They are also a minority. If they want to play a role in the future of Venezuela, they're going to have to change their tone and their tactics. For now, however, since many of them are "Europeans," there is a scramble to get their Spanish, Italian, and German passports for the day that Venezuela goes Cuba on them. I suspect this won't happen. The opposition controls most of the media, has much of the private property, politically controls entire areas of the cities and regions, and generally tends to complain about Chávez's destruction of the country while lounging in fine cafés, restaurants, clubs, and on the golf course. This never seemed to strike anyone as absurd. I had breakfast one morning in a country club with a former Finance Minister, as a golf tournament started up nearby. We talked about Aristotle and Mill and Adam Smith, and we also talked about his way of life possibly changing under the Chávez regime. There was an attempt to elicit sympathy. But it mustered about the same sympathy as my case of having lost my private jet vacation.

No comments: