Saturday, May 9, 2009

New President, New Mission, Same Sinister Objectives

After a week long tour of Bolivia, investigating and reporting on Washington's "soft war" in the Andean country, Eva Golinger was back in Caracas the other night to unveil the republication of her latest book, La Telaraña Imperial: Enciclopedia de Injerencia y Subversión (The Imperial Web: Encyclopedia of Interference and Subversion). Equally inspiring as her last two books, this co-authored piece of work is an exhaustively researched compilation of who's who in the complex network of global economic and political control. Once again utilizing her expertise in weilding the Freedom of Information Act as a citizens' tool for staying vigilant about the actions and intentions of international actors and private organizations, NGOs and think tanks, Golinger exposes the truth behind this sinister web of global cooperation and their objective of total control over us, the earthly masses, the average man, the average This non-linear read features such monumentaly influencial people as David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the three founders of the Trilateral Commission and in my mind, three of the most pyschologically diseased sociopaths on the face of the planet. The Trilateral Commission represents itself as an altruistic think-tank determined to confront and solve the latest challenges to the cooperative economic structures between North America, Europe and Japan, but the website does little to mask its ambiguity or blunt the uneasy sense that this group is nothing more than a filthy rich gentleman's club (sorry, "private citizens") who are working very hard to maintain and expand their spheres of control over global economic and political entities. The book spares no seemingly altruistic institute or feathery-titled foundation from the unveiling of their deception, nor any talking head from the revelation of their true substance; the entry for George W. Bush is appropriately three sentences long: "President of the United States of America from 2001 until 2009. Republican from the state of Texas, son of George H.W. Bush and ex-governor of Texas. Responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afganistán." What more could possibly be worth mentioning, the guy was a bumbling moron with the IQ of jello, who was able to capture the minds and hearts of uneducated and dangerously dogmatic religious republicans and implement the strategies of the real power brokers. These same power brokers are also secretely pulling the strings of the Obama Administration. His campaign was a perfect preview of things to come: an empty promise for change, a world of hope and a smile. Obama's hope is dangerous because it has nothing to do with change. Instead, it convinces people who don't know any better to accept a shitty today for the promise of a better tomorrow, because with hope anything can happen. What he forgot to mention is that nothing happening at all is an equally likely scenario. But so is revolution, only it won't happen through hope, it will happen through action, determination and faith in the dynamic spirit and inherent goodness in humankind.

The world wide revolution has already started, only you wouldn't know it from your coffeeshop patio in the North, sipping lattes with the morning paper. The revolution is happening right now across the global South, smoldering in the ashes of villages that stood in the way of the neoliberal machine, boiling in the blood of the dispossessed, people who lost their history and the cultural mirrors that tell them who they are and where they should be going. The revolution in Venezuela, or Bolivarian Socialism, is a complex and contentious social phenomenon that is leading a monumentous push by the new Latin American left to take back what has been stolen from them since Columbus landed in Jamaica all those years ago: resources, sovereignty and dignity. It's easy to criticize Chavez' 21st Century Socialism, accusing it of exacerbating corruption and violence, or challenging the true depth of its commitment and the extent that it is actually redefining the essence of the collective consciousness of the Venezuelan people, or questioning why millions in oil revenue (or the oil itself) is given away to other countries when people inside this one are marred by poverty. But the other side of Venezuela's story, what's going on right now behind the scenes and what's happened in the past to necesitate and explain the events of today, is rarely talked about, little known and never, ever reported on by mainstream media here or abroad.

Interference and subversion. The "soft war" that has been waged against Latin American for decades (alongside periodic small-scale, CIA-sponsored warfare) cannot be excluded from any legitimate enquiry into the objectives and the actions of the Venezuelan government. One of the principle villains in Golinger's research is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US-based foundation that operates internationally with the ironic objective of strengthening and spreading democratic processes around the world. While claiming to be funded exclusively by private entities, NED receives Congress-approved funding through the Department of State to funnel money to foreign political parties that stand in oppostion to democratically elected socialist/left-wing governments with economic agendas that put the domestic needs of their citizens above the contracts of exploitative multinationals. Among other organizations, the NED has put millions of dollars into the pockets of opposition political parties in Venezuela. In the game of dirty politics, the gift of money doesn't come without a wishlist: take out Hugo Chavez. The short-lived, failed coup attempt in April 2002 was virtually orchestrated by discontent voices in Washington, through the transfer of intelligence and strategy and the money to make it all happen. Watch The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or read Golinger's first book The Chavez Code to understand the full story. The NED, USAID, Sumate, and a host of other groups continue to operate illegally within Venezuela, implementing a strategy of interference and subversion in a "soft war" against the hearts and minds of the people through media control and pyschological operations (PSYOPS) to create internal division among the people and exploit the problems within the Chavez government.

The balance of power has already changed and Latin America is quickly emerging as a global superpower with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, among other nations, providing the leadership and the courage to confront their shared northern aggressor with its doctrines of "Manifest Destiny" and "Project for a New American Century", which seeks to reimpose relationships of subjugation across America's "backyard", to borrow the words of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Please, don't believe the lies about Venezuela and Chavez that are fed to you by mainstream media. Search around and find out for yourself. Viva la Revolución!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

International Workers Day

In much of the world, the corporatocracy's global assault on labor, employment and immigration hardly make International Workers Day a time for celebration. Instead, across much of the western world, May 1st is marked by strikes, protests and general discontent at the abysmal failures of neoliberalist policies to live up to their promises. In the US, misguided regional trade policies and persistent belief in the American dream have exacerbated the immigration issue and the country continues to witness a steady influx of illegal aliens. With numbers of 12 million strong, these workers have become an integral part of many economic sectors, especially in the South, with the supply of cheap labor they lend to industries like agriculture. Remove them and the economy would collapse even further than it already has. Yesterday in LA, thousands of supporters took to the streets to press for immigration reform, a burning issue that failed to pass Congress during the Bush era. In the midst of violent clashes between riot police and protesters in Turkey, the call went out in Istanbul for an end to fascism and repression and the need to implement socialist policies. The people of Taipei took to the streets to demand a response to soaring unemployment and falling wages. The new global pandemic is not Swine Flu. It is, and it always has been, capitalism's inability to provide the people of the world with the basic necessities of life, dignified employment and happiness.

It seems that only in the socialist South do workers have reason to celebrate. While in attendance for the May 1st celebrations in Cuba a few years back, where I witnessed what was to be Fidel's final infamous 5 hour speech, the people told me that upwards of one million Cubans descend on Plaza de la Revolution, half the population of Havana. In Venezuela, yesterday's Día de los Trabajadores was celebrated by the token march down Avenida Libertador of red-clad Chavez supporters, praising the achievements of their unique socialist revolution. I did not attend, but undoubtedly and in characteristic fashion, it was loud, passionate, a little bit drunken and with a suspicious, hard to define quality of obligation. Yet on the whole, workers, peasants and pretty much everyone except the upper class have ample reasons to celebrate as they've benefited greatly from the recent social reforms. Part of those reforms is the PDVAL program, a food security initiative whereby the state (through PDVSA, the national oil company) provides staple foods to the public at regulated prices. Although plagued by what I've come to understand as trademark Venezuelan, and not merely PSUV inefficiencies, the PDVALs are extremely popular and citizens line up early to get the best choice of the day's harvests. The most recent addition to the PDVAL family is a temporary location in the Bellas Artes district that speciliazes in dairy products. Along with agriculture, domestic dairy production has suffered enormously since the discovery of oil and the industry is marred with persistent neglect. This becomes most evident when surveying the Mision Mercal food stores and the PDVALs, rows of empty shelves with no milk powder in sight. Even conventional supermarkets, selling milk powder at 3 times the price, experience occasional shortages. These conditions, along with the desire to hamper the state's effort to improve food security, are what prompted the biggest food retailers in the country to hoard foodstocks, leading to a series of warehouse inspections, fines and stricter regulations on the processing and sale of staple foods. As trivial as it might seem, the significance of the powdered milk issue cannot be understated, a fact that Chavez himself has attested to. After the failed 2004 referendum attempt, he stated that the loss can be attributed to the state's inability to fill the shelves of Mercals and PDVALs with powdered milk, and had they succeeded in their epic last ditch effort, the vote would have swung in their favor. A friend of ours, who works for an international food wholesaler partially responsible for stocking the Mercals, tells the story with the same suspense and consequence you'd expect from a Vietnam veteran. Diplomats working and sleeping in a cargo airport in Brazil for 2 months, sending plane after plane full of powdered milk back to Caracas at nearly $200 a kilo in air freight. Apparently PDVSA officials were given the word to devote 2 million dollars to filling those sad, empty shelves and bring milk to the homes of Chavez supporters in time for voting day. Beyond the political motivation of this one incident, the government is truly devoted to making Venezuela food secure, but problems and inefficiencies with roots far deeper and older than Chavez' revolution continue to thwart one iniative after the other.

Yesterday milk products were once again at the forefront of politics, only this time linked to expressions of frustration, hatred and ignorance and not signs of goodwill. In a series of events eerily similar to those of the short-lived coup d'etat in april of 2002, there was a last minute change to the route of the opposition march, which was organized in protest of what they consider to be a dictatorial regime. Apparently spurred on by opposition mayor of Libertador, the largest municipality of Caracas, the protestors broke through a police blockade meant to buffer between pro and anti-government supporters, on their way to the National Assembly building. But fortunately, unlike the coup, the worst results of the violent clashes between demonstrators and police forces were some injuries and the senseless destruction of government property and not the loss of human life. The victim: the new PDVAL at Bellas Artes that provides Caraqueños with subsidized dairy products. In the wake of the opposition march, the temporary structure was badly vandalized, with 75% structural damage reported. The walls were torn off, the outside refrigeration units were smashed up and several people were dousing it in gasoline to burn it to the ground until the janitors from inside were able to chase them off with the help of some sympathetic passersby.

In Caracas, everyone is critical of everyone else and nobody wants to accept any of the blame for the violence, corruption and ignorance that rage out of control, making the city notoriously dangerous, inefficient and virtually ungovernable. At times you feel trapped in a massive lawless valley that's slowly sinking further and further into the mountain. If you're angry about your government, put your energy towards addressing one of the problems that stand in the way of an open and sincere dialogue between all parties in the political spectrum. Without even a semblance of constructive dialogue, criticisms become dangerous, ruthless, absurdly unfounded and start manifesting into physical acts of sabotage and violence. Ignorance and education, the overabundance of and lack of respectively, are two of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of a tolerant and more peaceful Venezuelan society, so I implore you, the Caraqueños, the people with whom I've shared a common home for over 6 months, to look within, analyze the nature of your criticisms, try to see the good in everything and please, just let the people have their damn milk!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

PRIV: Profile of an Institute

**Disclaimer: the content of this blog, outside of this posting, does NOT, in any way, represent the attitudes and opinions of the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela**

– Organization Profile –

We are an independent, non-profit and politically neutral institute based out of Caracas, Venezuela, that is working for the betterment of all humankind.

I. Guiding Philosophies

The underlying goal behind all the work undertaken by the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela is to make Prout a living reality in today’s world. Prout is the abbreviation for the Progressive Utilization Theory, which is a socioeconomic alternative that was conceptualized by the Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar (1921-1990) beginning in 1959. Prout is not a rigid economic doctrine, but a collection of principles that can be applied according to the requirements of any given place and situation. It is a model that opposes all forms of domination and exploitation and rejects capitalist economic growth as an end in itself. Instead, Prout proposes economic democracy, decentralization, participatory democracy, regional autonomy and self-sufficiency and takes the wellbeing of all living beings as the primary purpose of social and economic life.
While maintaining its foundation of several core macroeconomic principles based on economic democracy, each community needs to develop according to the requirements and aspirations of the local people. Some of these macroeconomic policies include: limits on salaries, wealth and land ownership to reduce the gaps between the rich and poor; state control of key industries to allow a more equitable distribution of a nation’s natural resources and wealth; and cooperative management of certain economic sectors such as agriculture.

Proutist theory is very comprehensive. Our institute focuses on the following core activities:

- Strengthening Cooperatives to improve the quality of life
- Promoting Economic Democracy to unite people
- Consciousness Raising to elevate human potential

II. Getting To Where We Are Today

We believe that strengthening cooperatives is the most valuable practical contribution that our institute can make in Venezuela at this time. Our initial work has focused on the Barlovento region of Miranda state, which is located about 100 kilometers east of Caracas. Due to its wealth of natural and cultural resources, Barlovento presents an incredible opportunity for economic growth. The area possesses very fertile land, with the cultivation of high quality cacao and plantain; it has a unique cultural wealth of Afro-Venezuelan music and dance; and its beautiful coastline has created a rapidly growing tourism industry.
Barlovento represents the highest concentration of Afro descendents in the country, whose ancestors were transported from Africa in the 18th century as enslaved workers. Years of domination have generated some inherited habits of subjugation, such as waiting to be told what to do, yet remaining resentful of authority. Both internalized and structural racism have resulted in high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime, declining levels of agricultural production and the absence of community groups and other social organizations. Historically these problems have been compounded by the national government’s general policy of neglect towards the region. We believe that all of these factors call for an appropriate and progressive model of development for Barlovento.

The importance of understanding and addressing the implications of the collective psyche at work in Barlovento, or any other region, cannot be overstated. It has dramatic effects on how individuals see themselves and how they relate to the outside world, two elements of self that will influence what they believe to be their own potential and the capacity for change within their community. Prout emphasizes the importance of creating a society where each person’s individual potentials can develop and thrive. To make this vision a reality, our institute makes consciousness raising a key priority in all of our work. In his preface to “After Capitalism: Prout’s Vision for a New World”, Noam Chomsky clarifies the link between our mission and the social conditions that exist in Barlovento by explaining that:

Slavery, the oppression of women and working people, and other severe violations of human rights have been able to endure in part because, in various ways, the values of the oppressors have been internalized by the victims. That is why “consciousness raising” is often the first step in liberation.

In the early part of the decade, Barlovento saw an extraordinary number of new co-ops start up, largely because of new forms of government assistance, such as a body of cooperative law, direct financial support and educational and training programs. Unfortunately there has been no follow-up to these initiatives to bring full circle the process of assessment – training/education/consultation – reassessment, and in this way create a more reciprocal and ongoing relationship. This has resulted in a substantial amount of cooperatives that have either stopped working or are barely surviving, plagued by inefficiency and internal problems. The long-term success of any development program hinges on constant reevaluation of the impacts or deficiencies of a particular strategy and the ability to make adjustments along the way.

III. Methodology

When conceiving a new project or conducting research, our strategies and approaches vary depending on the community we are working with. Local economic and social conditions and the values and lifestyles of the individuals and groups within the community or region must be considered. Throughout our research and project implementation we make a conscious effort to remain grounded in humanism and respectful of the community that we are working with. We realize that we do not possess all the answers and our primary role is to act as catalysts for change, nurturing the community’s own capacity to create unique solutions to their own particular problems. In this role, we strive to present new and effective ideas, alternative approaches to solving recurring problems and a wide variety of skills training and individual and group capacity building.
These principles of humanism and change through unity are equally employed in our other work. Positive communication based on mutual respect and understanding is crucial in any situation in social, political or economic life. Protecting our political neutrality is an important consideration when networking throughout Venezuela; however, this does not mean that we avoid establishing relationships with people and organizations on the political extremes. On the contrary, we strive to act as a bridge between traditionally divided sectors, connecting with and reaching understandings with pro-government and opposition groups alike. We wish to see divergent groups unite in support of programs and projects that aim to improve the quality of life in Venezuela and address the deep-seated problems that continue to plague society, such as poverty and corruption.

True and lasting change can only happen when individuals, families and communities all make the decision to commit to a new collective vision, whether it's a small-scale project or a more widespread socioeconomic transformation. Therefore, an integral part of our work is to establish and maintain relationships with people based on respect, mutual understanding and the common desire to create an egalitarian society with a more efficient and locally-based economy. Each relationship is a unique and reciprocal learning process. On a micro level, our strategies are constantly being fine tuned as we continue to learn from cooperative members about their struggles and successes.

Apart from our ongoing research and project development, our institute also remains engaged in public discourses on the national and international levels. We frequently give educational talks about Prout theory and participate in conferences that address themes in development and social justice.

The following list provides an idea of the methodological foundation that we rely on to develop our own capacity and to strengthen cooperatives.

- Review national and international research on cooperatives and cooperative training programs.
- Implement a needs based assessment of cooperatives and related public institutions that would examine current conditions of cooperatives.
- Analyze available public and private documents in the country, including statistical analysis of quantitative data.
- Interview and consult with key leaders in the cooperative movement in Venezuela, from both public and private sectors, to discuss their experience and opinions.
- Design a survey questionnaire to get a representative view of the challenges, successes and needs of Venezuelan cooperatives. This will also assist in the categorization of cooperatives for analysis purposes and future work.
- Analyze and triangulate data from diverse sources in order to determine the precise needs and perspectives of relevant public agencies, cooperative members, and affected communities.
- Consult with cooperative experts in Venezuela and in other countries to discuss the analysis of data to determine possible components of an effective and culturally sensitive cooperative training program.

During the past two years we have implemented these strategies to broaden our knowledge base of the co-op situation in Venezuela by networking at all levels of civil society. We’ve established strong relationships with government organizations such as SUNACOOP (National Superintendent for Assistance to Cooperatives), semi-government organizations such as Gestión Participativa, and universities such as the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). More recently, through a joint learning project with the Universidade Federal de Minais Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, we’ve broadened our network of support into other sectors of civil society. We hosted 21 university students and their professor for an intense six-week educational program called “Project for Economic Democracy”, through which we made contact with individuals and groups representing healthcare, education, media and Community Councils.

We also developed a detailed, 85-question survey that we conducted with cooperative members in Barlovento along with interviews and informal discussions. These methods were a tremendous help in obtaining the necessary statistical and qualitative data to formulate a more concrete and quantifiable representation of all aspects of a cooperative enterprise. This research also facilitated the filming and production of our 2007 documentary film “Another Life is Possible: Cooperatives in Barlovento, Venezuela.” Through this project we were able to establish positive relationships with many of the communities and cooperatives in Barlovento, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the daily realities that people face in this region. This work has been indispensable in providing a solid foundation for follow-up research and future projects currently in development. In the area of training and education we will continue to collaborate with outside experts and cooperative members in the following areas:

- Creating a positive work environment and a healthy group dynamic based on mutual respect, trust and transparency.
- Organizing and conducting an effective group meeting.
- Methods and principles of non-violent communication.
- Maintaining an organized and efficient accounting system.
- Developing and implementing a strong and sensible business plan.
- Strengthening leadership capacity among all members.
- Instilling and encouraging cooperative values and principles.

We are also continually engaged in strengthening the network of support and cooperation that exists among the different cooperatives. Since most cooperatives face many of the same non-technical challenges, knowledge sharing becomes imperative towards this end: what worked as a solution to a particular problem in one cooperative may work for another. Strengthening the local economy and bringing more autonomy to any region also requires creating supply chain links between cooperatives. For example, if the materials needed by a manufacturing cooperative can be supplied by another cooperative in the region, then more money will be reinvested in the local economy.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Referendum 2009

Tomorrow afternoon Venezuelans will once again step into the polling booth, this time to decide if the country should amend the 1999 Constitution to abolish the two term limit on all elected positions. This would affect mayors, governors, legislators, members of the National Assembly and of course, the presidential post. Until recently I long believed that having Chavez in the driver’s seat was indispensable for the continuity of the revolution and if he were taken out of the equation today I think you would see a panicked collapse from within, if not a subversive takeover from without. But a lot can happen in three years, only I don’t see the leadership question moving in the right direction. Chavez continues to become more of a focal point in the whole movement. Day by day it seems the story is more about one man’s triumph’s over the traditional power structure of hostile opposition forces and US interests that desperately want to see them back in control of the oil. Yes, these triumphs truly are amazing accomplishments, especially considering the war that is constantly being waged against him in the private media and at times within the very system itself. The past sabotage against the economy is no secret and even today many serious inefficiencies in the health care system are caused simply by an unwillingness among individuals from the opposition to cooperate with the system by maintaining effective and open channels of communication with the state. I guess there’s a little communist in everyone…at least in theory. In the effort to provoke a counter-revolution, many individuals have adopted the communist tendency to exploit inefficiencies or at best show a strong indifference in the face of problems that are easily within their power to change, all in the name of discrediting the state. In spite of sabotage, Chavez’ accomplishments, in particular the Missions, continue to have a tremendous impact on the lives of millions of people, for the first time bringing health and dental services, education and a stable diet into the homes of the previously excluded.

So where does the referendum fit into this movement? Is it a necessary step to preserve these gains in the face of powerful and hostile adversaries or is it a sign that momentum now depends entirely on one man? Certainly this drive is not about a defect or a lacking in the “new” constitution, but instead a move to prolong the leadership of one individual. And the whole thing seemed to spring out of nowhere, as if this move was plotted all along, to be executed when the political climate was ripe enough. But as history has shown, Chavistas have little reason to think they will lose any electoral contest and there’s a certain arrogance behind knowing that as long as all the party members and supporters turn out to vote, victory is pretty much secure. And so public funds are being used to rally supporters behind the dominant political party. Problematic? It certainly is in an ideal representative/participatory democracy, but they are never ideal and political theory in practice is always corrupted by greed somewhere down the line. Chavistas argue that given the hostility and influence of the private media and the subversive tactics of some opposition sectors, using state money to fund an electoral campaign is necessary to level out the playing field.

So when faced with the question of “How is Chavez really using his power?” one really has to take a step back and try not to look through the lens of history in this region and try not to feel a truth through a consideration of the alternatives being presented. Remove his actions from these contexts and it might seem like you’re left with nothing more than an autocrat who has found a loophole in the most progressive democracy in the world: the perfect scapegoat, a vicious enemy whose crimes have been far worse. But when standing amidst the crowd or swimming along the river of red down the main boulevard it makes me wonder how the press at home and abroad still gets away with calling him a dictator. Dictators don’t get people flocking to the streets with enthusiasm to celebrate the gains they’ve made together and to reinforce the visions they collectively hold. After the second hour of hearing Chavez speak many people from the back of the endless column of supporters begins to recede and head home. The slow exodus reveals the ground below, blanketed with discarded propaganda leaflets and empty beer cans, which makes me wonder: how deep does this Bolivarian Revolution, or Socialism for the 21st century, actually go?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As within, so without

Like never before in my life, this timeless adage resonates with my current string of experiences, not merely intellectually, but as a deeper, heart based understanding. When I was thrust into Caracas I quickly saw my sense of preparedness disintegrate from within me. The countless hours spent pouring over any information I could find about Venezuela and Chavez immediately became apparent as a solitary brushstroke on the vast canvas that is the modern Venezuelan condition. The real complexity and the real beauty lay hidden behind a thick and raw exterior, within the people, amidst the smoke and garbage lingering in the streets. After two months I now feel the cresting of the connection that eluded me for so long. What seemed hostile and sterile is now inviting and alive. What was once merely an old couch, some wooden boxes and an oil drum table resting haphazardly in a dirt lot beside a main road in downtown Caracas became a doorway to the infinite for three self-proclaimed social anarchists and a solitary, wandering Canadian.

I consciously lost myself that day, yielding to the intuitive impulses that sprung forth from the merging of man and environment. I became light, a drifting plastic bag at the mercy of a dusty, cosmic wind. The hours passed as I meandered up and down the side streets and alleyways, vibrant new scenes opening up before me at every new turn through this labyrinth of nameless passages. My meditation in motion was like experiencing god everywhere I looked, but more than looking, it was like seeing a true essence beyond what would have previously seemed so mundane.

Along the main boulevard in the fine arts district I became captive to a gorgeous mural adorning the 15-foot wall running parallel to the street. I casually took pictures, crouched down on the pavement or among the branches of nearby trees, capturing all the angles, all the while lost in telling myself stories about these shadow covered images. Further along, I crossed the boulevard, attracted by a large billboard of Chavez with a man selling weathered books on crumbling tables in front of it. Politics, spirituality, history, literature, he had a bit of everything. I ducked behind a small kiosk to take a picture, not wanting to attract his attention and possible disapproval. I found out later that he had noticed me long before, when I was still approaching from down the street. When I emerged his glance and curiosity awaited me. I asked if it was all right that I take photos. He didn’t mind and immediately brought me into conversation. Where are you from? What are you doing in Caracas? His name was Luis and he was kind and assertive. When I told him I was from Canada he asked if I spoke French and I said yes. One of his friends hanging out behind the billboard was from France. This weak coincidence was offered to quell any hesitancy I might have had towards his hospitality and I was invited to duck below Chavez to meet the Frenchman and his other friend. I gladly hopped over the small metal fence supporting his tables, ducked the billboard and emerged into another reality.

The billboard on one side and a cinder block wall on the other created a comfortable enclosure from the chaos and noise of the street. To call the lot dirty would be the unchecked voice of a foreigner. Caracas has a notorious dysfunction in garbage collection, and I’ve become convinced that people see litter as I see leaves in the fall, something that, by nature, will inevitably clog the drain ways, pile up on street corners and slowly decay beneath the footsteps of pedestrians. Another friend of theirs, who is also the man who has access to the lot because he rents a small street-level apartment nearby, cleans the corner that juts into the street every day, removing trash from the rustic flower bed, trying to preserve the beauty by fighting daily battles in a futile war.

A side story: I was dumbfounded on my first trip into the countryside when riding a bus through lush, pristine jungles, home to trees bearing bananas, cacao, mango, papaya and more, I asked the lady beside me if I could squeeze by her to get to the garbage bag at the front. She simply pointed to the open window beside me. I observed the other passengers for a while. Since we had just taken a pit stop most people were now finishing up their snacks, throwing the bottles and wrappers out the window. As part of Mission Che Guevara, one of the new social programs designed to promote cultural values and enhance collective identity and community spirit, volunteers dressed in red shirts comb the sides of all the main roadways in the country, removing the garbage one wrapper at a time. The filth of the roadside ditches is a sad contrast to the brilliant green canopy above and these people are trying to restore some of the balance. Angered by this pervasive mentality, I once ‘politely’ accosted a young man on a similar bus ride when he tossed a Gatorade bottle amidst a group of the volunteers, so evidently there, red against green, baking in the sun, fixing a problem at a point so far from its source. “Don’t you realize that there are people, maybe even your neighbors, out there cleaning the shit that you throw from the bus?” He shrugged his shoulders and asked me why I bothered to care. The government creates the solutions and envisions a brighter future while educating the people about the way forward…why is it taking so long? Chavez must be corrupt and mentally ill and any political path lined with socialist rhetoric and red stars is fated to suffer the same collapse as history’s other Communist failures.

This is Caracas and the lot was immaculate. Sparsely planted with small ferns and palms, with patches of green grass clinging for life to the dry dirt below. Three black dogs, gray from the dust, were lying lazily among the flowerpots. It was there that three children of god were living their lives, on a tattered couch and wooden crates encircling the oil drum table. The scene was familiar and safe, even destined, as if they had been waiting for me. Although already late in a dangerous part of town I had no reservations about opening myself up to the encounter with these would be strangers. The three friends were all in their late thirties or early forties, profoundly intellectual and highly aware of their place in this city, this country and this universe. The Frenchman was an artisan and was semi-occupied with stripping down a thick piece of bamboo into thin sheaths, which he then sanded down, heated over a flame and twisted into random circular shapes. The third man was named Carlos. He was Venezuelan and worked as a bartender at the nearby Hotel ALBA, formerly the Caracas Hilton until Chavez copied Castro and had the name changed to a more revolutionary title. The ALBA is the regional trade agreement based on Latin American sovereignty and unity and is a powerful, emerging alternative to the proposed US-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which would basically be NAFTA on steroids.

Luis was by far the most vocal and commanding. It took a few of his outbursts before I accustomed myself to his intensity. For the first half hour the others were mostly silent, nodding their concurrence as he railed me with his piercing and politically charged narratives about the current Venezuelan condition. At times I wanted to interject with bits of opinion or extrapolate on his commentary to show I that understood well what he was talking about, but what I thought were openings were merely pauses in his raw, street side lecture. A few girls stopped to look over the books and the metal and bamboo work so Luis walked over to help. My eyes followed him and I sat silently, staring at the back of this man, absorbing and trying to process everything he had divulged. Although he had spoken incredibly fast (I can’t think of anyone who might speak faster than an impassioned Venezuelan) I understood nearly everything he had said. It was different than most of my daily conversations in Spanish. I wasn’t screening as much and was therefore less active in processing the grammar, trying to assemble a complete understanding. Instead I just cleared my mind and opened myself to this man, his energy and his words and I believe that to some extent I was intuiting the message at a higher frequency, partially freed from my lower two levels of consciousness.

Over the next three hours, until the last metro train was about to pass by, I had similar, although more participatory conversations with the Frenchman and Carlos. Each of them also had a profound and unique outlook on our place in this world and what it means to live life fully, combining the terror of being a man with the wonder of being a man. I had hardly noticed the time slipping by when Luis reminded me that the metro would be shutting down shortly and to be careful on the long journey home. As we said our farewells, certain of another encounter, Luis offered me a book entitled “Man and Philosophy in Venezuelan History” and the Frenchman gave me a spear of bamboo, unfinished to ensure another encounter, that would be morphed into something spectacular. I packed my bag, skipped over the fence and onto the sidewalk, holding my head high as I moved briskly down the street, comfortable and aglow.

Days passed, then weeks and despite having sent an email to Carlos I hadn’t heard from any of them, until yesterday. I was walking out of the park and into the main plaza of Bellas Artes with a good friend of mine named Randolph, when at the exact moment that I started to explain one of the premises of the Celestine Prophecy (yes, I know, but please stay with me) regarding the true nature of what we call coincidences and chance encounters, I looked up and saw Luis, standing on the other edge of the plaza, talking with another man. We greeted each other warmly, in solidarity. I reminded him of my name we made the other introductions. I told him that I’ve passed by the lot a few times, but haven’t seen anybody there and asked if he was still selling his books. He breathed deeply and his brow furled inward. He told me that his close friend, the man who had access to the lot and lived in the small street-level apartment nearby, passed away last week. They haven’t been back to the lot since then. I never asked him how he felt or what they would do now, where they would go because at the time it was irrelevant and in large part, still is. Nevertheless, the questions have surfaced slightly through writing these words and pondering the endless twisting, crossing and parting movements of our paths and what that night meant to them, if it held any more meaning than any other night, as it did for me. In truth, the thoughts are likely self-aggrandizing since I was no doubt merely one passerby, one guest offered a wooden crate in a history of plenty, but for that special place, I am the last, and within that unique dance of cosmic energy, which revealed so much knowledge about our world and ourselves, tantalizing our souls to release us from our minds, we will forever be the only ones.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Diary from a Revolution

December 5, 2008.

It was my last night in Barlovento before returning to Caracas the next morning. Didi Anandasadhana and I were sitting down at the kitchen table at Centro Madre, the Ananda Marga Relief Centre where she has worked and lived for almost a decade, more than long enough to lay claim to a worthy perspective about the transformations that have taken place during Chavez’ ten year reign. It was a rare dry and quiet night for December and we snacked on dried and salted plantain chips given to me earlier that day when I stopped by the state-constructed plantain processing plant to visit Jesus, a friend of mine who works there, and the brother of Noris, Didi’s helper at Centro Madre.

After discussing how our days unfolded the conversation quickly turned to Chavez. Earlier in the evening I had been watching Canal 8, the state-run television station, which offers a non-stop barrage of polished propaganda, when during one of his many speeches Chavez boldly pronounced, “if you’re not with us, you’re with the opposition.” I turned, mouth agape, to Didi for confirmation that I aptly interpreted the translation. “Did he just say what I think he said?” I asked. She wore a half smile and shook her head slightly as if witnessing the comic behavior of a troublesome, but lovable child. “Yes, that’s Chavez.” The parallel hung heavily in my mind until that evening at the kitchen table. “I still can’t believe he said that! I mean, he’s all too aware and critical of Bush’s rhetoric, surely he realizes the connotations of such a divisive and hostile remark. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists. Divided and hostile. This is the reality of the political climate.

The other week, I spent the better part of an evening with an upper middleclass Venezuelan woman who had called in response to my ad at the University for interest in doing a language exchange. It was Sunday and everything was closed. I suggested walking the main street nearby to find a quiet café or restaurant, but she didn’t like the neighborhood, it was too dirty and noisy. We drove instead to a faraway shopping complex in a “bedroom city” about 45 minutes above Caracas. The luxury of that option was evident right away, both as a visitor and as a resident. The “bedroom cities” accommodate the upper middle class workers who happily accept the commute (up to 2 hours during peak times) to escape the danger and noise of Caracas after dusk. It was amusement parks, gourmet food courts and name brand European clothing stores. After having spent the last two months between Caracas and Barlovento I certainly felt like I had left the country. We spoke in Spanish for the ride up and then switched to English halfway through our meal until she dropped me off in Caracas later that evening.

I hardly even had to probe to get her to rail about the political situation, she offered it, calmly and intelligently. She wanted the world to know how awful things have become in ten years, how blind and deceived are his supporters and how they are traveling on a road to hell. Most of her stories, in essence, were true, but with those facts she spun a very dark and hostile, and in my mind, unwarranted reality of the situation. First, there’s the “black list”, a database comprised of the names of people who signed the petition supporting Chavez’ removal from office a few years ago. The Constitution allows a citizens’ group to remove any elected official if they can procure 20% of the electorate body that voted him or her into office. They failed in their attempt and apparently that list has become a secret weapon to deny certain rights and privileges to citizens of the opposition. She went on. Free health care is a farce. The state-run hospitals are dirty, inefficient and lack vital equipment. I’ve heard of really long waits, token symbols of past socialist programs, but god forbid I seriously discover the realities of the rest because I don’t have any health insurance. Violence has skyrocketed precisely in response to economic mismanagement. Apparently the work force has not recovered from Nestlé’s decision to move its main office from Caracas to Bogotá.

Alas, I believe there’s some truth in all of this, but to say outright that the country is in a worse state and getting worse by the day is to speak from a very narrow social platform, is to deny humanism, is to deny the empathy and understanding that should unite a people with a common history, and is to prevent bridging the psychological and material gaps that have evolved out of that of lived experience, out of centuries of exploitative historical legacies. Classism. Yuck. How do you overlook your own role in the history and the sociopolitical structure that caused the very problems the state is now trying to remedy? The more dire the problems, the more drastic the solutions sometimes have to be.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, is again being rallied by the big man to tweak the law restricting the president to two 6-year terms, in an effort to secure his post until 2019. This same attempt failed last year by a count of 51 to 49. I asked Didi what she thought about this. She took a slow breath while staring off to the right, reflecting. “You know,” she began, “I often wonder if I’m crazy, if I’m overlooking something obvious or if I just want him to be everything I think he is so badly that I’m unconsciously ignoring the evidence that would confirm the accusations of the opposition.” I agreed with her. Opinion everywhere, in every form, is so skewed and rife with passion that no matter how much a person receives they never feel closer to truly knowing. However, it is a lesson in listening to your heart. Didi’s heart tells her that he’s good, that he did not become a politician because it’s a lucrative career, but because he believes that it is his life’s mission to mend the deep-seeded wounds in the collective identity, the shared reality that is Venezuela. One thing is certain: without Chavez, the Bolivarian Revolution and Socialism of the 21st Century in Venezuela and possibly more of Latin America, would come crumbling down in a greedy heartbeat. Not enough time has passed and the psyche that stands in the way of true, lasting change, has yet to be effectively and honestly acknowledged, accepted and reconstructed through cooperation and compassion. Do I have a problem with unlimited terms in office? Yes and no. First thought: authoritarianism. Second thought: if people keep voting him into office then why not? The democracy is firmly intact, progressive and participatory, but within that system Chavez does manage to govern in an authoritarian manner.

Didi has worked intimately with the impoverished communities of Barlovento since the days of widespread flooding all those years ago, which was the initial reason for building the Relief Centre. As a nun, she now works closest with the women and the young girls in need of stability or a better opportunity. Noris and I were talking while washing the dishes. She’s in her early twenties, educated, and middle class for Barlovento. Her family lives relatively comfortably, but they don’t have much. The reason for the stagnation of social change, she explains, is not only due to a lack of infrastructure, access to government services and a developed economy, but more importantly to the psychology of the people.

Neglect or deny a people’s basic human rights for so long, show them through the way you govern that they really aren’t that important, tell them that their turn to prosper from the country’s oil bounty and natural splendor will just have to wait, over and over and over, and what do you expect to happen? How do you expect people to react to new opportunities? One might think eagerly of course, and some do, of course. But there’s also a peculiar undertone to the noisy yet hushed life in the streets, an invisible yarn that spins the country scene into being: the belief that this is life, and for better or worse, this is really all I can hope for. She said it with lament and I wanted to internally agree, but removed from the situation, removed from the people she loves in her family and her community they seem like noble perspectives in some ways. It is what keeps people going from day to day and enables them to fully appreciate the smallest details and be present in the moment of life. But I lament knowing that it prevents them from taking advantage of this opportunity. The crux of the Bolivarian Revolution is that people have to meet it halfway. It was born from 80% of the population and their collective experience with exploitation and neglect. It was born of the barrio and the campesino. It was born of Chavez and he is of this background, he is this demographic, he is the heart of this country. And the heart of this country, until now, has being denied participation in the development of their economy and in the running of their society. Ten, twenty percent, were born of privilege, went overseas for their education and corporate training, or assumed a position in the family business. They took office. They negotiated with foreign firms seeking more raw materials. They dominated the state-run enterprises. They were building their dream. Now the tables have turned. The new leaders, the new mayors and ministers are struggling in their quest for the obvious reasons of charting foreign territory. This is participatory and the people have to meet the process half way. I want to see this revolution succeed, not only for Venezuela and Latin America, but for the entire world, as an example to humanity that there is another way and that while deconstructing and reseeding a psyche, an economy, a nation, a people, is painful at first, this change is inevitable and will give birth to wondrous joy and prosperity.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Know Your eneMEDIA

One of the greatest pleasures of being right in the heart of the Venezuela is being able to simply walk out my door, down the winding streets of my neighborhood, into the screeching, screaming frenzy of Caracas and chart firsthand the highly polarized and deceptive political territory of the Bolivarian Revolution. I went to three different stops on the main metro line. One in the most affluent area, one in the poorest area, and one in a middle class area, asking the same question to roughly 100 people: Did Chavez ban 300 people from running in the election? Could he do that? Even those who hate Chavez admitted that he doesn't have the power to act so arbitrarily and every single person either said 'no' or 'i don't think so', and you can be rest assured if such an event happened, everyone would have heard about it here.

The latest article in the National Post confirms all the suspicions, or better yet, expectations, of how twisted and warped a story really becomes after leaving the land of Bolivar and making its way to Western media outlets in a country near you. Somewhere along that journey it succumbs to the machinations of the doomsayers, loses its objectivity in transit, blanks out for the ride and awakens a pawn in a deadly game of political charades. It seems that many foreign journalists have a tendency to restrict their investigation to a homogeneous minority of sources, often representatives of the opposition or those otherwise critical of the Chávez government. I believe that Peter Goodspeed did just that with his recent critique of this year’s mayoral and gubernatorial elections in Venezuela. The full article is available here.

The following is the response that I sent to the editor of the National Post, believing that citizens everywhere have the right to political and social perspectives from outside their borders that strive for objectivity and honesty and present both sides of the story.

Speaking as a Canadian citizen working in Caracas, I was deeply concerned about Peter Goodspeed’s November 21st article on the Venezuelan elections. It worries me to know that such a distorted image of the political climate in this country is being presented as fact to the Canadian people. The claim that Chávez has banned over 300 politicians from running is an outright lie, which bears the trademark opposition tendency to cast people found guilty by the broader democratic system as innocent victims of a reckless dictator. The real story is that new anti-corruption measures prevent all candidates found guilty of illegal activity to run for reelection, which has affected both anti- and pro-Chávez politicians alike. This claim also denies the strength of the Venezuelan democratic process, which was recently ranked by the polling firm Latinobarómetro as having the region’s second highest rate of satisfaction with the functioning of their democracy. Chávez did not ban anybody from political participation, nor does he or anyone have the power to do so, and if it did occur, you can be sure that the opposition would have taken to the streets. This is just one example among many, making it clear that Goodspeed has relied entirely on opinion from within the hostile and anti-democratic opposition while ignoring to check his facts or provide sources for his information.

Another sour point in the article was the following sentence: “He [Chávez] has threatened to put anyone who questions the victory of his own candidates into jail and vowed to put tanks into the streets of states that end up in the hands of opponents.” And I reiterate, Venezuela has one of the most progressive democracies in the world and 87% of citizens here support their democratic processes, up from less than 40% when Chávez first took office. To think that this type of unilateral and arbitrary decision would go unopposed and not cause people to hammer down the doors of Miraflores is absurd. The previous statement was again a warped reinterpretation of several vows made by Chávez during one of his pre-election rallies. The following was taken from an article posted on Venezuela "If in some states in the country the opposition wins, I will be the first to recognize it," Chávez declared during a campaign rally in the state of Cojedes. "I ask the political parties of all tendencies that we recognize the results of the elections and demonstrate our democratic spirit.” Immediately rolling the tanks through the streets is the new rendition of Chávez’ warning that he will not tolerate opposition mayors and governors who attempt to overthrow the national government with their newly acquired power. The vow to deploy the military under such circumstances is not only unproblematic, but a wise decision in light of the 2002 coup attempt and the relative impunity with which the opposition has previously attempted to destabilize the country through positions of power and media control.

Just for fun: the article also makes reference to Chávez’ failed attempt at a constitutional referendum last year, saying that “he was humiliated”. Humiliated? He lost 51-49. The most contested aspect of the referendum was the removal of term limits, which critics have equated with legalizing a dictatorship. However, removing term limits doesn’t remove elections, a majority of the people would still have to vote him into office every 6 years. I was also skeptical about the referendum. It was long, confusing and manipulative, whereby it attempted to sweep through radical structural change by tacking on a whole list of enticing, materially rewarding policies. That’s not the way to gain support or benefit those in need.

Onto the next. I barely need to explain the erroneousness of the following sentence: “But now Mr. Chávez's support is eroding, just as domestic inflation and crime rates are soaring and oil prices are dropping.” What are the reasons for uniting these unrelated ideas in the same sentence and what type of journalist with what motives would do such a thing? Unless you’re citing a recent poll by a respected and impartial polling authority I believe it is nearly impossible in this political climate to assert that Chávez’ support is eroding. Presently, Venezuela has one of the stable economies in the world and inflation is constantly over exaggerated. Crime rates have displayed an upward trend for decades, long before Chávez came to power. And given the cultural and historical legacy of the region it is ridiculous to blame the failed leadership of Chávez for rising violence in yet another sprawling, barrio enclosed Latin American capital. I won’t even get into the oil debacle, save to say that for the first time there is a genuine commitment in the government to diversify the domestic economy (instead of only playing import substitution with oil) to achieve greater self-sufficiency thereby reducing susceptibility to volatile world market prices.

Chávez is often criticized for not following some abstract behavioral consensus, political norms guiding the actions and relationships between heads of state. To make this argument, which is highly Eurocentric to begin with, means overstating the existence of such a construct and assumes that the way (Western) heads of state interact with and address their nations (read teleprompters and oftentimes nonsensical, repetitive jargon) is somehow good and wouldn’t benefit from change. Sure, he’s not acting like a predictable politician, but is that such a bad thing? There’s something very admirable about a man who can talk openly to his people hour on end, unscripted and pure. I realize that it may seem like I’m beginning to drift into an open sea of unquestioning acceptance of this charismatic figurehead, but like anything else this page is propaganda, my propaganda, and all I’m trying to do with it is point in a direction where truth may be found, based on my experiences, my knowledge and my place in this world. But I don’t try to hide my biases, better they be clear and out in the open than obscured behind some veil of unachievable objectivity.