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.

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