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Learning From La Venezuela

By davidswanson - Posted on 10 February 2012

Imagine that your son, your darling little boy, was killed during the past eight years in a war that served purely to kill a whole lot of Iraqis and enrich a small number of billionaires, while causing horrible environmental damage, stripping away our civil liberties, and poisoning foreign relations elsewhere.  And imagine that, instead of avoiding this reality or lying about it, you confronted it.  Further, imagine that you became so famous confronting it, that everybody wanted to be your friend, at least for a minute. You might even get invited to Venezuela by President Hugo Chavez, and you might go with a mind open to hearing what he had to say.

Cindy Sheehan did.  And now she's published a book about it.  If Venezuela makes it to the top of the list for the next U.S. war, this book will be a valuable tool for confronting the propaganda.  But why wait?  Our government has attempted a coup and is openly funding opposition groups.  Why wait to consider what it is we're paying to try to undo?

Venezuela could be targeted for its oil, of course.  But Cindy proposes another reason why the government in Washington, D.C., that we all so love to hate except when it kills lots of people, might be targeting Venezuela.  In an interview included in the book, she asks Chavez: "Why do you think the Empire makes such a concerted effort to demonize you?"  His response, which has been translated from Spanish, is:

"I think for different reasons. But I've gotten to the conclusion there is one particular strong reason, a big reason. They are afraid, the Empire is afraid.  The Empire is afraid that the people of the United States might find out about the truth, they are afraid that something like that could erupt in their own territory -- a Bolivarian movement; or a Lincoln movement -- a movement of citizens, conscious citizens to transform the system. . . . So, why do they demonize us? They know -- those who direct the Empire -- they know the truth. But they fear the truth. They fear the contagious effect. They fear a revolution in the United States. They fear an awakening of the people in the United States. And so that's why they do everything they can. And they achieve it, relatively, that a lot of sectors in the United States see us as devils. No one wants to copy the devil."

But we might copy some little things even from the devil if they were worth copying.  What is it that Sheehan and Chavez think might be contagious if we found out about it? 

This is why the book is a valuable resource now, threat or no threat, war or no war.  It's a story of a people's movement, largely nonviolent.  It's a story of dramatic change that was slow in coming and then burst into fruition.  It's a story of a work in progress that is moving in positive directions, investing in education, protecting the environment, raising the living standards of the majority of the people.  Can a new political party succeed?  Yes, it can.  Can an outworn Constitution be rewritten at great length and well by a popular movement?  Yes, it can. (PDF). Cindy lists some of the changes brought by this Constitution:

·      added a "people's branch"
·      added an "election's branch"
·      citizens are able to recall the president
·      health care is enshrined as a human right
·      education is enshrined as a human right
·      gender inclusivity in the language
·      equal rights for women under the law
·      only the people can amend the document
·      aggressive indigenous rights
·      commits the power of the state to protect the environment

The horror!  I know some USians who don't dare HOPE for such a CHANGE. I even know some who are learning that such changes are perfectly possible, but that they don't come about through hoping, or through voting alone. 

The weakness of the Venezuelan revolution, however, is very similar to the weakness of US liberalism.  Each pins its hopes on a single messiah.  Of course, Chavez is making the poor richer, while Obama is making the rich richer.  But it appears entirely possible that positive movement in Venezuela will be thrown into reverse when Chavez dies.  Chavez ought to be teaching his nation not to depend on one man.  He ought to step down while alive and well enough to help guide his successor.  He ought to move on to a focus on uniting the nations of South America.  That he does not do this seems to me a mark against his character.  But it does not change the fact that the Venezuelan people have been empowered to rule by referendum, while in the United States the presidency has been made more powerful than that of Venezuela -- and without the addition of direct democracy.  The Venezuelan Constitution has already been amended, by public referendum.  The U.S. Constitution hasn't been touched in 40 years except through dramatic changes imposed by the Supreme Court or the President.

The question that my mind focuses on in reading Cindy's account is not, however, what can I find wrong with Chavez.  It's this: Can we make an Occupy movement worthy of the title Bolivarian?

 Hey there, I have actually lived in Venezuela for 8 months. I studied abroad two separate times there when I was in college, both times in the city of Merida. I was there in the fall of 2007 when there was a reform vote and also in the spring of 2009. I have also read one of the best biographies on Chavez, Bart Jones’ “Hugo.”

I think your article is good but I wanted to address a few points towards the end. I had a class on Latin American politics when I was down there in 2009. The class was taught by a guy who was in his late 20s, and was in his late teens when Chavez first got elected. As a young naïve teenager and radical socialist he told me he was in the streets marching and chanting in support of Chavez, and he had certainly voted for him. However, 10 years later he had changed his tune. He was now overtly anti-Chavez. In large part because of how, in his view, all Chavez did was give the people hope and never actually pull through, in fact his view was that Chavez was purposely not improving things for the poor so as to keep them dependent on his government give-aways, and therefore sure votes. This is a fine line, I know, it is the same type of argument Republicans accuse Democrats of in the welfare discussion. But I digress.

I also distinctly remember this professor saying “no hay movimiento”: basically, Chavez is a complete one-man show, there is no legitimate movement behind him. He said that when Chavez is gone there won’t be any more revolucion bolivariana. This is pure speculation, but its possible that Chavez may not want to groom a successor because he might very well know the truth about his own movement (but his ego is probably a large factor also).

I also have another activist and organizer friend that I lived with for a while in Caracas (May 2009). He has been to different parts of the country promoting cooperatives and doing other things. When I was down there he was a solid Chavez supporter, but when I spoke with him just a little while back he had since stopped supporting him, saying that things had taken a turn for the worse down there and that Chavez was not getting the job done.

My point is this: while I do think Chavez has done good things and speaks bold truths (and I am disgusted about the whole coup extravaganza and how we fund opposition groups), I am cautious to glorify him and his (I use this term loosely) movement has the greatest thing ever; moreover, I am in no way convinced the goal of the occupy movement should be to someday be worthy of the Bolivarian title. It is hard to compare the two because one has been a strictly leaderless movement and one has been based solely on one single man.

Lastly, how exactly would you distinguish between what you refer to as US liberalism and the Occupy movement? I am a bit unclear there. I think mainstream US liberalism (defunct as it is) did, indeed, place a lot of hope in one single messiah, but I think many people (the smart ones) have since become disillusioned and realized that they pretty much got duped by a politically expedient centrist. I would argue that the weakness of US liberalism has nothing to do with its hopes in a messiah, but rather, that it is corrupt, gutless, sold-out, compromised, corporatized, and defunct. I recommend “Death of the Liberal Class” by Chris Hedges.

It is precisely the failures of President Obama and US liberalism that the Occupy movement has sprung up.


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