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.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Transitions, Part I

A few weeks ago I attended the, hold on now, okay, the “8th Annual Global Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity and the General Assembly of Global Alternatives Forum” in Caracas, Venezuela. Set in the heart of the art and culture district in Caracas, this weeklong event brought together some very esteemed speakers from across the globe to discuss this year’s topic: “Transitions towards Socialism”. I listened and took notes intently and eagerly, putting on and taking off my headset with the ebb and flow of clarity and ability offered by the translator. It was the first night and the panelists from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina were aptly tackling the big one: socialism in South America. I left the theatre and began walking in the dark, head up, alert, towards the metro for the long ride home, my body pulsating with passion and inspiration, yet unsurprisingly, as if just having read some Derrick Jensen, feeling no better trained than before to pick up symbolic arms against corporatism and dismantle the veils of deceit hung before us. For a moment it hovered in my mind uneasily like jargon from an adolescent anarchist’s journal: endless theory and analysis, however brilliant and awe-inspiring, but no concrete action plan.

Then I divided, freed myself and accosted my meddlesome mind, “Silly mind, the front lines have changed and you’re still living in the past. This is the Battle of Ideas. This is the beginning of a New Evolution, so take the weapons you’ve just been given and go forth and fight for…” Then someone in the small crowd in front of me makes a dash to the yellow line and everyone follows since the vehicles will seldom stop or slow down for just one or two. A man on the other side sells me a shot of espresso for a quarter from his ramshackle coffee cart. I sip and relish in my experience. A New Evolution? Hopefully something less sterile and not manifested through dominance, predation and war, but through cooperation and compassion.

The Cuban speaker put it bluntly, “there can be no capitalism with a human face.” This is to say that apologists for capitalism – those who believe it is the only viable way to stimulate production and distribute resources and that honest leaders and a functioning democracy are all that is needed to keep its exploitative potentialities at bay – are ignoring its inherently predatory nature and the human propensities of greed and competition that are vital to its functioning. We all know this by now: greed, competition and insatiable desire are the operative organs of this system, they are what keep it alive and spinning out of control. So why do we think that we can somehow retool it to make the corporatist vultures that are working very hard to control every aspect of our lives, that profit from war, poverty, disease and catastrophe, to all of a sudden begin treating equally the life of the average person and the financial success of one of their own. Sorry, but it won’t happen and the system of profiteering from manufactured and natural disasters and the global power structures that orchestrate and support it must unequivocally be brought to its knees.

Now to pursue a viable alternative. For many, the very word socialism conjures up archaic Cold War apprehensions or fears of regression to a colorless, mundane and mechanical state-run existence. The reason is obvious: the abysmal failure of most socialist regimes to achieve any semblance of a worker utopia. The US points a stern finger at Cuba’s suppression of civil liberties and ‘relative’ economic malaise as proof of socialism’s destiny to fail, while conveniently overlooking their own insidious economic warfare and the incredible longevity of Cuba’s anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist social order. We cannot look at the past as models to be copied. The experiences in Russia, Cuba and elsewhere are useful as lessons only. The social conditions and collective consciousness of each country are too dynamic and ever changing to believe that an externally crafted social experiment will not be rejected by the internal body politic of a totally unique recipient nation. So we need to be forward thinking in the name of equality, participatory democracy, sane environmental policies and universal spiritual development.

Another pitfall in the pursuit of socialist ideals is the tendency to get trapped in a vast array of dogmas, theories and abstractions, as a weekly meeting with most young Marxist groups will demonstrate. The idea of socialism cannot be restricted to merely reconfiguring the ‘modes of production’ and ‘wealth distribution’, nor to a prophetic belief in the inevitability of a classic proletariat revolution, all of which limit the scope of the creative process. The last major pitfall discussed at the conference was the dangers of transition politics. The overwhelming majority of transition scenarios since WWII have shared a common script: a newly independent colony, a former Soviet satellite state or democratically elected left of centre government has been dismantled, coaxed or threatened into adopting a neoliberal reform package. The US government has created the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a task force made up of murderous CANF representatives and Bush era neo-cons with the goal of conjuring up a favorable political transition in Cuba. Their website describes their “commitment to the Cuban people” and their “unwavering support for human rights, democracy, and the open market system [which] will define and accelerate U.S. efforts to hasten a transition to democracy.” I can’t help think about a parallel transition that is playing out in Iraq and how well that is going.

Any experience with transition politics has only proven it to be a narrow ideology. Nothing moves from one static state to another and as such there cannot be a rigidly held endpoint in sight to which leaders attempt to force the currents of change. Social progression is an organic and self-reproducing process whose core visions and goals should be reflected back onto the day’s struggle and used to retool the multitude of strategies.