Venezuela Understood

Thanks to GP (writing in Daniel’s Blog) for pointing me to two outstanding pieces by Alma Guillermoprieto published recently in The New York Review of Books. They are here and here

I often dispair at foreign writers’ inability to write lucidly and non-propagandistically about Venezuela. The vast majority just pick up one party line or the other and run with it. It takes a rare talent to cut through the layers and layers of BS and get to something genuinely fair, balanced and insightful. Add to this a sleek prose style, an amazing ability to summarize vast amounts of background information and a principled refusal to dumb down the story, and you get…Alma Guillermoprieto.

Really worth a read.

I’ll reproduce a key section from her first piece:

It is too soon to judge how well the many ambitious social welfare and education programs launched by Chávez —they are known as misiones—have succeeded in redressing Venezuela’s deep inequalities, but they suffer already from an essential flaw: as with everything else Chávez creates, their existence depends on him. This would seem to be a reflection of the President’s apparent sense that everything that happens, that has happened—in Venezuela, and in this hemisphere as well—in some way relates to him. At a meeting with Uruguayan investors last July he noted that their national independence day was approaching. What a coincidence, he noted: in July also—on July 26, 1953—Fidel led his assault on the Moncada barracks. And on another July 26—in 1952—Evita, Evita Perón, died. “And just two days later,” he said, “on July 28th [1954], I was born! Imagine!” There is the melodramatic flair, the flamboyant clothes, the generic love for the poor and the authoritarianism: one could actually think that he is Evita reincarnate, and Perón, too, if it weren’t for the fact that Perón died rather late (1975) for a proper transmigration of souls to take place.

Such are the hallucinatory terms in which one can easily find oneself discussing the state of Venezuelan politics. In Caracas today it often seems as if there were no issues, only bilious anger or unconditional devotion—or gasping bafflement—all provoked by the President, who takes up so much oxygen that there is no breathing room left for a discussion of, say, the merits of his neighborhood health policy, his relations with Cuba, or whether the chronically overflowing currency reserves should be used merely to guarantee the rate of exchange or to finance, as Chávez has, the multiplying misiones. How can one reasonably discuss whether the upper management of the oil company was involved in plotting a coup when the President is busy firing seven of those managers on Aló Presidente, saying “You’re out!” and giving a blast of an umpire’s whistle? And how can an interviewer, in this case Jorge Gestoso of CNN en Español, possibly discuss the merits of such an approach with Chávez when Gestoso must begin by insisting to Chávez that this event actually did take place?[5] The official use of lies, the opposition’s terrified rantings, the abandonment of civility by the press and television take place outside the realm of politics, and do away with reason.

The problem is that all of this defies description, one observer has written:

…That is why the critics are so totally at a loss; they don’t know what the weak flank of chavista politics is because it is an unheard of combination of little-known things, with a totally new result. The populist element, the good-ole-boy element, the martial spirit, the willfulness, the Bolivarian delirium, the economic pragmatism, and the monarchic arbitrariness are known, along with the authoritarianism of the old [Caudillista] compadre. None of this is new, but the combination of it all (to which must be added his luck, of which he has too much) is what is incomprehensible.

Thus, in a convoluted, sometimes brilliant journal, the columnist Colette Capriles, who writes as if she had spent much of the last few years lying on her sofa in a state of mild depression, watching events unfold on the television screen.

Even after a visit of only a few weeks, one can start to feel claustrophobic in Venezuela, as if the people there were all living inside Chávez’s head, with some making small squealing noises as they try to get out. But the President has no visible worries: the various misiones—in favor of ethnic culture, literacy, college equivalency, medical care in the barrios, in defense of street children—are thriving, in no small part because there are tens of thousands of highly skilled Cubans who have been assigned by Fidel to staff them, and also because they are lavishly financed—in ways the health and education ministries could benefit from. Who knows, Chávez says, he might even remain in power through the year 2024, or even 2030.