Big brother

By Published On: February 2, 2006Categories: Politics0 Comments on Big brother

He is everywhere. Imprinted on city walls, beaming from T-shirts, stuck on baseball hats, brandished on posters and unavoidable on every newspaper and TV channel.

With his open-necked revolutionary-red shirt, military short-cropped hair, chunky head and neck and slightly pointy ears, there is no way you can miss the US’s least-favourite Latin American President, Presidente y Comandante Hugo Chavez.

Elected in 1999, he is currently celebrating 7 years in power having survived a coup attempt, a referendum to end his Presidency, a consistently hostile US administration and visceral opposition by the largely middle and upper classes of Venezuela. He has benefited from a boom in oil prices to fund large numbers of social projects in the poorest parts of Venezuela, and has forged an anti-US line in Latin America.

Chavez has kept me company in one way or another for a week that I spent in Caracas, Venezuela, meeting with Water activists and presenting a campaign to get water out of free trade agreements at the activist gathering, World Social Forum that I attended last year in Brazil.

Not only was he omnipresent in the jostling city of crumbling concrete high-rises, he also seemed to dominate a good part of the supposedly non-governmental/non-party debate at the World Social Forum with some workshops ending with ringing out chants of "ooh aah, Chavez no se va" (Chavez is not going), Chavez speaking at two major events during the week, and then dedicating his chat-show (well it is really just him doing the chatting), Alo Presidente to the World Social Forum.

There appears to be no middle ground on Chavez. You either love ‘im or hate ‘im. I found myself disinclined to believe the sharply-dressed business woman in the metro who told me that he had "destroyed the country", that poor people were lying several to a bed in hospitals due to his inept policies and that he had become a virtual dictator. It seemed to contradict the fact he has won election after election as well as deny the facts of a clearly free press that daily shouted out headlines of rising debt and corruption.

However when I went out into a poor suburb, and a woman wearing a hugo-red Tshirt told me breathlessly that "Chavez is like a father to me – one who brings up his children – and gets them to be ready for the world", I found myself also slightly unnerved, wondering what kind of democratic revolution can be so fixated on one man.

Yet in that same suburb, it was clear that Chavez’s politics had created a level of inspiring, community-based activism that seemed very far away from the idea of a one-man revolution. I have never been in a neighbourhood which buzzed so energetically with feelings of change and hope.

I arrived with a young activist of my age, Julian, from the neighbourhood who introduced us to a group of energetic and enthusiastic middle-aged women in the community of Caricuao that clings to the edge of the green hills on the outskirts of Caracas.

The women showed us around various projects, often called "misiones": a community wholesale supermarket called Mercal with subsidised basic foodstuffs (in which 85% of poor people are now said to do their main shopping), a series of mini-health clinics run by Cuban doctors, a community food kitchen, and a small makeshift school where a small woman of 83 beamed out from behind oversized glasses as she spoke proudly of how she had recently learnt to read and write.

These are Chavez’s base, and it is clear that the reason they vote for him is that they feel he has voted for them. Gladys, one of the community activists said she had got involved because "finally we had a President that was committed to treat us all equally regardless of wealth, skin colour or background."

The last few years has seen a big influx of money from the nationalised oil and gas company, PDVSA for these projects. But perhaps more importantly than the money, this investment had clearly inspired the community to take their own steps to help themselves. Several of the women had in effect given up their houses to host some of the projects, most impressively Marisol who now receives 150 people a day in her house for lunch, provided with food by the Government. "I wanted to do it because I like work and want to do stuff for my local community" she told me matter of factly.

This feeling of solidarity and mutual action was reflected in the Cubans who were living in the community – working on health, education and sports projects. The obvious mutual respect and love between the Venezuelans and the Cubans was infectious.

Whilst watching kids do an energetic work-out led by a Cuban physiotherapist, I chatted to Berta who coordinates the involvement of 25 Cubans in Caricuao. She had left her family of five to come to work for 18 months in Venezuela. "I miss my family a lot, but this community has been so friendly and hospitable and it is very satisfying to be working and supporting the revolution here."

It is a growing sentiment in Venezuela that no doubt inspired workers in a neighbouring town, Carrizales to occupy a factory which produces valves for the petrol industry that the owner had tried to close. After several years of struggle against the former owner, the workers had persuaded the Government to invest in the factory which they run as a cooperative. I arrived to see workers restoring machines with obvious pride getting ready to start production again in what they hope will be four months. Others were using the lunch break to learn how to read and write in a small classroom above the factory floor.

"We used to be just workers here," said Mario Vargas who had worked for 15 years in the factory. "I couldn’t even go upstairs, but it’s ours now. It shows that the people can win."

But behind everything, seemed to lie one man. Hugo Chavez. It was as if no other Government official existed. When I asked about who had approved the water project on a visit to the small community of Pedrera Antimano, I was told it was Hugo Chavez. "What personally?" I asked. Yes with another minister (who was nameless), I was told straightly. I found myself wondering whether he ever slept or whether he had created endless doubles like Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the US hates him because he is working with the Koreans to create millions of clones of himself.

When I asked people if the work would continue if Chavez got run over by a bus, they would all uniformly give me a resounding yes. "As we say here, the struggle continues, Bolivar lives" said Gladys (Bolivar is the hero who liberated Venezuela and countries like Bolivia, and is second in league to mentions of Chavez which is not bad going seeing he has been dead for a couple of centuries).

On one level I believed them. It is clear that Chavez if anything has kickstarted a process of community organising that now depends not on Chavez but on hundreds of people like Gladys, Margarita, Mario and Yunelly. They won’t disappear and will inspire others.

But I think the focus on Chavez makes a broader democratic revolution much more unlikely. He has in effect created a divided Venezuela that revolves around one pole: himself.

It is partly in the love and loathing that he provokes that filters all developments and policies in Venezuela through the perspective of his involvement. This makes any healthy critique and debate almost impossible to hear. The more he gets attacked by the opposition, the more those who are benefiting will refuse to hear anything negative said about him and push him even more into the limelight. National debate has become a fight between the deaf.

But it seems to also be reflected in a failure to extend the democratic revolution that is taking place in communities to a national level. Accountability seems to be just based on relationships between Chavez and the communities. One young activist told me "We focus on Chavez because he is the only one we can trust." This means that different levels (municipalities, state-wide authorities) are probably not subject to proper scrutiny and accountability, moreover I doubt they are experiencing the renovation that is clearly taking place in some local communities.

Lastly, it seems to be reflected in the country at large. Whilst changes seeming to be taking place at local level, another world of the powerful and rich, which may be perturbed by Chavez, seems to continue as normal. I felt this very powerfully when I returned from the buzzing poor neighbourhood of Caricuao via the suitably-named street of Las Mercedes lined by plush restaurants, chains of Subway, Domino Pizzas, a vast shopping mall and sparkling-new 4 by 4s. Can it really be called a revolution whilst this world lies untouched?

I left Venezuela largely inspired – by a Government that clearly has a strong commitment to the poor and to social justice but most of all by an atmosphere of hope, solidarity and belief in change. It’s a sign of currents of change across Latin America that I hope to see reflected in certain ways in Bolivia. ‘Brother’ Chavez shows that it is possible to make a difference to the lives of people who have been excluded and impoverished by years of liberal market-economic policies that dominated Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. But whilst he remains a Big Brother, I can’t help wondering how long the revolution in Venezuela will last.

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