« universities, civic engagement, and the global market | Main | Emilio Estevez' Bobby »

December 6, 2006

an embassy from Hugo Chávez

I took these notes while listening to Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela's Ambassador to the United States. He was speaking at the University of Maryland, as part of my Institute's effort to develop a project that would address Venezuela's deep internal divisions and learn from its vibrant political debate. (See Phronesisiacal for more.)

The Ambassador began with a complaint. The administration and the media blame the Chávez government "for everything," he said. It is "basically the media" that sets the agenda concerning Venezuela in the United States. The American Congress cannot think past "2+2=4"; they don't have time to go beyond what the media tells them. (Later he added: "if you watch the media in Venezuela for even half an hour, you will think that the country is in a civil war.") But last week's "huge" electoral victory shows that the people support Chávez.

The Ambassador drew a distinction between "civil society" and "the people." He explained: "For us, 'civil society' [means] organized sectors of society very much connected to big business. 'The people' [means] marginalized people, people who are not connected" to the economy. Later he said that the whole point of the Bolivarian Revolution is to give the power back to the people.

"We don't have anything against representative democracy, but who is represented there? Basically, the elites." After the crisis of the two traditional parties in Venezuela, he said, "no one was expecting that the people themselves would take over." But that is just what happened in Venezuela's "constitutional moment." Although the Ambassador did not clarify when this moment occurred, I assume he meant Chávez' electoral victories and the Constitution of 1999, which was ratified by a plebicite.

Bolivia has even gone further than Venezuela. "We are westernized," the Ambassador said, but in Bolivia, "indigenous people are taking over completely" from the colonial state. "People say, if you let the people participate, you are a demagogue and you are not rational." But we are ready for mature democracy.

"People are always saying: "[Venezuela] is a polarized country.' Well yes, but it is a polarized country because of wealth." The elites who traditionally controlled the oil wealth fomented a coup and then massively sabotaged oil production.

"We will always try to favor direct or participatory democracy," Mr. Alvarez said, "over representative democracy." He conceded: "Of course, you always need representative democracy, because we understand that minorities have the right, for example, to exist."

The Ambassador said that "neoliberalism" favors civil society over the government. "Part of the neoliberal agenda is, you destroy the state." But in the Andean countries, civil society was corrupt ("unions, etc."). "We decided, let's try to create a new state." Cuba provided 20,000 doctors "to do the job that [our] own doctors don't want to do." Now the Cuban doctors are training Venezuelans.

The Ambassador ended with a call for North-South dialogue: "More than half of the problems are not because of the United States, they are because of our own elites." "We need people who could open a different dialogue. I would urge you to put together thinkers ... and social movements" to develop a common agenda for North and South America.

In the Q&A, he defended community councils as a vehicle for participatory democracy and claimed that they were increasingly out of the party's control--evidence of the "excitement" of participation.

I welcome the call to dialogue, the rhetoric of empowerment, the experiments with councils--and those Cuban doctors. I sympathize with this former professor who probably doesn't get a fair hearing in Washington. And I grant that economic elites have been repressive and corrupt throughout the Andes, as elsewhere. However, I left the speech more suspicious than ever that Chávez represents a false populism that equates "the people" with the party, that disparages pluralism, and that blames the media and elites for all criticism. So far, charisma and oil revenues have kept the government popular, but what happens next?

December 6, 2006 11:20 AM | category: populism | Comments


Site Meter