Tahrir vs. Altamira

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My new column for The New Republic – a personal meditation on the drama of Tahrir Square as seen from a Venezuelan exile’s perspective – is now up behind their paywall: an excellent reason to subscribe! (Or, buy the dead-tree version…)

A taste after the jump…

It was not easy for me to watch the drama of Tahrir Square; and I cannot imagine that it was easy for any of my fellow Venezuelan exiles to watch, either. To the millions of us who marched our hearts out in the anti-Chávez protests of 2002 and 2003, the sight of those huge, hopeful crowds in Egypt set off an instant shock of recognition. In late 2002, a steady build-up of massive marches—usually numbering in the hundreds of thousands—brought Caracas to a standstill for days on end. All of us who marched—and marched and marched—back then can instantly summon that heady exhilaration, so visible in the footage from Cairo, that a crowd gets when it feels itself invincible while trying to achieve the impossible.

1 COMMENT

  1. How funny, some foreign friends that lived in Venezuela at the time told me the exact same thing. Watching the crowds in Tahrir Square transported them back to those days in Caracas, when Venezuelans thought that yelling and banging pots will make him go away.

  2. here is what I wrote back in january in my blog echoing the same.

    Voy al clavo, las huelgas de hambre en situaciones de gobierno como el de CHavez no funcionan.

    Una huelga de hambre no es eficaz si no causa asombro, preocupacion o verguenza contra quienes va dirigida. Aqui los unicos expertos en esa materia han sido nuestros presos, que huelga tras huelga de medio centenar de personas y hasta cosiendose los labios no han logrado cambio alguno en sus condiciones. http://www.guia.com.ve/noticias/?id=30125

    Historicamente las huelgas de hambre son un fracaso. Dicen que quienes no aprenden de la historia estan condenados a repetirlo, en el 2009 hubo huelga de hambre en merida http://bit.ly/fjhyKb pidiendo a que la OEA viniera y bueno si no recordamos ese evento fue porque nunca vino.

    Cuando un pais es regido por la voluntad de un hombre como Chavez, entonces preguntemonos cuando el ha demostrado esos sentimientos en primer lugar?

    Asombro? Nunca,
    Preocupacion? Jamas,
    Verguenza? Donde?

    Entonces vamos precisamente a usar algo que es inefectivo e inutil como una huelga de hambre para que nuestro presidente se conmueva y haga algo?

    No es la huelga el problema es la falta de participacion, igual pasa con las protestas, las marchas y casi toda los tipos de expresion popular que tenga que ver con la participacion fisica del venezolano.

    Lideres como Chavez solo entienden una cosa: Confrontacion. El esta comodo pensando que puede mas que nosotros, porque nosotros le dejamos saber todos los dias que el puede mas, que nos puede amedrentar, asustar, comprar y hacernos correr cuando el quiera y cuando quiera. Es asi de simple.

    Que un grupito o un partido quiera hacer un cambio, gradual y controlado es una ilusion. Con Chavez es todo o nada, recuerden eso. Si se empieza algo, entonces que sea hasta el final, nada de dar tregua o dialogo. Recuerden CH fue derrocado, y fue el titubeo durante esos dias despues que cayo lo que le permitio volver al poder, y esa leccion la aprendio muy bien

    Chavez no quiere nada a medias y dejar nada a medias, incluyendo la posiblidad de que haya debilidades en sus decisiones. Y es por eso que una huelga de hambre, contra un lider que ha sido despiadado en sus decisiones, endurecido por tantos ataques, vamos entonces a buscar lastimar sus sentimientos de esa manera para que recapacite?

    Entiendan bien, nadie en su gobierno mueve un dedo a menos que Chavez lo ordene. Y esperar que venga alguien del exterior a apoyarnos es el colmo de ser ingenuos.

    Las huelgas de hambre y su hermana loca, la inmolacion, son inefectivas a tal manera que Uds pueden rociarse en gasolina y quemarse vivos en las llamas de la autoinmolacion por la patria, democracia y todo lo que es bueno, y nada va a pasar en lo absoluto, porque a CHavez no le importa lo que un solo individuo haga. La diferencia radica cuando todo el pueblo se levanta a la vez.

    A Chavez lo que le quita el sueño es que todo el pueblo se levante una sola vez contra el como lo hizo Egipto, Tunez, Honduras y otros paises. El puede destruir una marcha, un grupo, pero no puede contra todo un pais levantado a la vez. (si lo repito mil y una veces)

    Por eso amigos, no perdamos el tiempo con sentimentalismos, no mas huelgas si el pueblo no esta ahi presente con los huelguistas! para que debilitarse? protesten si, peroguarden esa energia para luchar!

    Esta situacion no es de un grupito o de una sola persona para que la solucione, el individualismo no logra nada, estamos bien lejos de que esos metodos obtengan algun beneficio. Ahora es salir todos juntos a protestar, vean el ejemplo Egipto, en dos semanas el pueblo unido hicieron mas que cualquiera sentado sin consumir comida.

    Cuando oigo que hay una huelga de hambre para liberar a Afiuni, yo les digo: Quieren que la Juez Afiuni salga de esta pesadilla? Que vayan 5 mil personas a la carcel y la saquen a ver si los van a parar! Eso es mas contundente y efectivo que mil huelgas.

    Solo hay una opcion, ya saben cual es, todo o nada, sin tregua y sin violencia.

  3. Yeah! Why cant we read your hard work for free!

    In the meantime, tell them that I agree to subscribe if they make you a REGULAR writer there. And, I think I can guarantee that several hundred facebook friends will hurry to emulate my example.

  4. OK, I realize this stuff is good natured (I do!) but gimme a break! Y’all have been squeezing content out of me for free for yearssssss! I gotta pay rent, dudes, and so does TNR…

  5. Quico- although I think you can be a bit condescending at times to blog commenters (is that a word?), even ones that are on your side, you are a talented writer and I’m glad to see that you can turn this talent into an income stream and wish you all the luck. I would pay to read you if there weren’t already so much free content online.

  6. FT, from your article:

    “…Most political scientists would probably still describe Venezuela as a hybrid regime.”

    dic·ta·tor   
    [dik-tey-ter, dik-tey-ter] Show IPA
    –noun
    1. a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.
    2. (in ancient Rome) a person invested with supreme authority during a crisis, the regular magistracy being subordinated to him until the crisis was met.
    3. a person who authoritatively prescribes conduct, usage, etc.: a dictator of fashion.
    4. a person who dictates, as to a secretary.

    Please explain specifically, what part of the definition is the bit “political scientist” don’t get, for I’m puzzled…

    • Hey, you went and got the full version, I’m touched!

      Of course, if you read the full version, you already know what I was getting at. Whatever the dictionary might say, in current usage the word dictator is usually -not universally, but usually- reserved to people who head regimes that seek to punish all dissent, playing whack-a-mole with dissidents every time they pipe up. This is what the Chinese regime does, what the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes did and a key element in making such regimes fragile. In Venezuela, even today, repression is selective rather than comprehensive: dissidents are sometimes – almost at random – picked out for jail, but in the normal run of things most people who dissent in public do not expect to end up in jail and do not, in fact, end up in jail.

      I’m not saying this is a good definition of dictatorship – I’m not really persuaded myself – but I do gather that this is the one that most political scientists implicit follow. Which explains why, if pressed, most would resist applying the D-label to Esteban even as – as the article also notes – few would really doubt that the general direction things are going in is towards greater and greater repression of more and more people in more and more circumstances.

      • But brother, nowhere in that definition can one read that only after rounding people up in a stadium can the definition be applied!

        Mind you, you guys are tidying up mass murder, massive human rights violations, with the act of exercising power in a certain way, which is totally non sensical.

        • You’re being a bit literalist with what’s just a dictionary definition: a first approximation to the use of a term that is ultimately contested. The dictionary doesn’t own the meaning of a term – it tries to capture the way a term is used. In this case, my sense is that the dictionary misses distinctions most people implicitly know to make.

          Incidentally, the thing that flattens and negates distinctions between “mass murder, massive human rights violations, with the act of exercising power in a certain way” is denying any distinction between, Gaddafi style totalitarianism, Mubarak style dictatorship and Chávez style autocracy. That’s exactly the pitfall I was trying to avoid in the first place!

          • I don’t think I am being literalist at all, rather I think you’ve a problem using terms appropriately. The dictionary certainly doesn’t own the meaning of a term, nor does it a branch of science. Definitions get into the dictionary by common use over time. If the definition of dictatorship most commonly accepted is for someone to exercise power in a certain way, read in the absence of checks and balances, then why would you, or any other political scientist, refuse to use the term to define a guy who exercises power according to the dictionary definition, down to the last t?

            What distinctions are those you’re referring to, those of political scientists?

            No one is arguing that the guy is a mass murderer, however I don’t think that even from your comeflor point of view you can refute the fact that he has incurred into massive violation of human, civil and political rights. And he fits the definition of dictator.

            So I guess, to sum this thing up, is that when you’re writing for the bleeding heart liberals over at TNR, you must not give the impression that Chavez’s is a hybrid regime, for it ain’t. There’s overwhelming evidence to prove the point in this, your very own blog.

    • In other words, repression is not absolute – but the threat of repression is.

      The first definition Alek cited is the crux. BY what I just said above, Chavez does not “exercise” absolute power. But the second part, that he “has absolute, unrestricted control” is where it gets difficult to argue. Where are the checks and balances? Obviously, there must be something of that behind his recent retractions – even if they are of the nature of five steps backward, then reversing and taking just one forward.

      But then, who ever in this world had truly absolute power? There are real checks and balances that don’t exist on paper – just ask Julius Caesar.

  7. quico i think you are absolutely right, by the way congrats on publishing in tnr’s, but with due respect, tahir vs altamira has another point of view besides the emotional connection you so well describe and i can vouch for, as i was there too.
    BUT… egypt has had 30 years to fall out of love with mubarak, who at first elicited the same feelings of redemption from a large part of the egyptians. we have suffered chavez for twelve looooooooong years, at least it has been enough for a large part of his followers to fall out of love, or at least the concept that his idea of well being and satisfaction for our country, is not resonating with the majority of his followers.
    65% of venezuelans ( consultores 21) are in disagreement with the model of the country he is selling, as satisfaction and well being. the country he is trying to sell or rather stick down our throats, isn’t the country we want. only 35% agree with it. and it’s hard to reverse that tendency… our tahir square, will be on december 2012…”just you wait henry higgins, just you wait!”( lyrics from my fair lady)

      • I haven’t read your article either – sorry! – but I’m feeling one very important distinction (perhaps the most important) between Mubarak and Chavez-like regimes is the extent of dissent they will tolerate, not the time they have been in power. It strikes me as terribly efficient (and depressing) to do as Chavez does: allow some minor dissent, punish at random; and I wonder if this strategy will allow him to go on for much longer than most people hope. And I am left to wonder too (because I’m ignorant) how much of that strategy, even if stretched thin, has been used by the Castro regime, one of Chavez models and a very long-lasting dictatorship unlikely to be bothered by Tahir-style protests.

  8. Toro – yes I can appreciate the feeling of nostalgia you must have felt when seeing the protesters triumph in Tahrir Square. This was not achieved in Plaza Altamira in 2002 and not in the marches you refer to.

    What I do not understand is why – now that the opposition is the majority (sic) – there are not more marches to osut the Chavez dictatorship? After all the country is a total disaster according to your cohorts in the opposition press. Please explain.

    Even if you do not march surely the opposition with 40% of the deputoes in the AN could organize themselves better and go for a recall referendum. This is peaseful, legal and participatory for your makority, is it not?

    However, with so any of you people in exile (hahaha) it must be difficult to m muster enough support to get people out on the street. But you still have Naria Corina and Alfonso marquina to look up to and in whom to place your hopes – democratic or otherwise.

    • arturo: we don’t need maría corina or alfonso marquina to organize tahir square like marches to outst chavez. he is doing a very good job of it, all by himself. at this point, only 35% of the population agree with his idea of the country we all want so – as i told quico- our “tahir square” won’t have to wait 30 years for discontent to happen, it will be in the polls on december 2012. the best campaign manager? huguito himself

  9. I have not yet read your full article, FT, but I congratulate you for having it published. From the teaser you and TNR provide, I disagree with the journalistic parallel you sought to create, between the marches onto Tahrir Square and those that took place, largely in Caracas. Yes, my initial gut made a quick connection between the Cairo marches and the multitudes that united as an opposition force to the Chavez government, in the early part of the last decade. But that gut feeling vanished quickly, when I saw the seriousness on the faces of the Egyptian crowds. To say nothing of their resolve, days on end, after the marches had begun. I remember flashing back to the countless photographs I saw of those who had taken to the streets in Caracas, especially photographs of those from the east end. Qué falta de seriedad! The younger set sported artistic face paint that obviously took time to create — for display, while the more nubile sported bikini tops from their vantage point on SUV rooftops, also for display. Those in the third stage of life were arm and arm, while they smiled broadly, enjoying their moment of socialization. In sum, it didn’t take long to realize this: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. No comparison whatsoever between the marchers of Cairo and those in Caracas.

    • Totally agree Syd, those marchas in Caracas eran una sola joda, pura guachafita, posturing and cogeculo.

      I’ve said this before: Muslims and Venezuelans just couldn’t be further apart.

      • Alek,
        For somebody who has criticized us before for being detached from the Venezuelan reality, I find this comment ungenerous. I don’t think you marched a lot to know this first-hand.

        Don’t knock them until you’ve (literally) walked a mile in their shoes.

        • Sorry this got you upset Alek. I assumed you hadn’t. I don’t keep track of your schedule as I probably should.

          And no, I haven’t marched one bit. Have never claimed I had.

          Chill, man.

          • Juan, there’s no need to get ironic on me. You were perfectly aware of my involvement with Rosales in 2006, which I could easily describe as a 3-month long marcha.

            But I also marched in 2003, in both chavista and opposition rallies.

            So the question should be, if you haven’t marched one bit, how could you possibly know that my comment was “detached and ungenerous”?

            I think you guys need to chill also, ever so quick in dismissing whatever I have to say.

      • Alek, I agree with the sentiment but, when you say “esas marchas eran una sola joda, pura guachafita, posturing and cogeculo.” you are generalizing. And generalizations usually miss the nuances of situations. Not all the people rallying at Chavista marchas were paid or forced to do so, not all the people rallying at oppositions marchs were escualidos that were there for the bochinche.
        I think we discussed this around the Japanese and the guys in Tunisia, we are what we are and comparing and complaining that we are not like some other culture leads to nothing. Con estos burros hay que arrear.

        • Moraimag, in my experience marching in Venezuela, I have never seen the sort of commitment, for instance, that I have encountered in rallies in London, in which nobody is trying to topple a government. When people go out to participate in a rally, they tend to be motivated by issues that they consider worthy of protest. To be perfectly honest, I have never seen that in Venezuela. It may well be, that some of the recent student rallies are different.

          But, FT was referring to the bailoterapias of 2002/03. Having gone to those I just can’t see how a parallel with what’s going on in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya can be drawn. First of all, your average Venezuelan rally-goer is in no way comparable to counterparts in North Africa. Second, I am yet to meet one Venezuelan who prior to go out to a rally would think “OK, this is it, whatever happens, whatever it takes, I’m not coming back home until this regime falls.” Perhaps your experience is different. Third, I find preposterous to advance this notion of “Chavez is next”, for that very argument of yours “we are what we are, y con estos burros hay que arrear.” Our burros, to begin with, are not prepared to be driven, they have a mind, and interests of their own, and I am yet to meet the first one willing to put the well being of the collective before personal agendas. So without selflessness it is rather difficult to achieve the sort of things North Africans are achieving.

          We are what we are. We are a society that comes carnaval, jumps on a car and heads for the beach, disregarding the general state of things. We are a society who’s always waiting “a que alguien resuelva.” It may sound as a generalisation to you, but that is my experience. In Venezuela, rallies are social events, collective catharsis, with a high component of jodedera. As long as protests in Venezuela are mon-fri, 10-3 affairs, Chavez has got nothing to fear. Aside from that, he is, let us never forget, the $2 trillion dictator. He knows that everyone has a price tag, that everyone can be inhabilitado, that everyone can be forced into exile, but more importantly, he is a master at exploiting the sheer selfishness of Venezuelans (the army brass is the best example). So he plays us like a fiddle.

          We could easily beat him, alas, as a society, we are not there yet. Will we be in the future? That’s anyone’s guess…

          • well, well, well, i surmise from all the back and forth i’ve been reading, that alek is right and wrong and viceversa… i guess moraimag means that we are what we are, (not even a country, según cabrujas) and the name of the game here is that the ejem… “donkeys” are not getting what the trillionaire dictator has been offering for ages, and are not happy about it.
            that this said $$$dictator has an idea of a country -that is in the here and now in a different page with what the majority of “burros jodedores que se van pa’ la playita” want; and i would dare say increasingly so.
            and that is the question: “is the country chiabe wants to give you, the same country you want? is his idea of wellbeing for you X, the same idea of well being you need/want/expect?” this goes straight to our visceral connection, with our expectations for our country, and it applies to all kinds of jodedores, propios y extraños, psuvis y escuálidos. it applies equally to a lifetime member of the rancid godarria, to the last pemón in the frontier with brasil. con marcha o sin marcha, intensas como las londinenses o jodedoras como las nuestras. or as i should translate this sugar induced midnight rant: i see the glass half full. at least IMO, and with due repect, never forget tahir square happened 30 years after the guys were sick and tired of their once beloved mubarak…thanks <3

          • and that is the question: “is the country chiabe wants to give you, the same country you want? is his idea of wellbeing for you X, the same idea of well being you need/want/expect?”

            Lavici, that question of yours, short and to the point, basically sums up my PhD research proposal.

            Questions of nation and identity, in the IV Republic, were the domain of intellectuals cum politicos. From Gallegos, to Uslar Pietri, these intellectuals shaped who we are, what we are, as a nation. The further they, and their disciples, got from the message, the worse we became, as a nation. While the thrust of their discourses was that civilization had to be imposed over “la barbarie”, or as Gallegos famously said “hay que ponerle un cerco a la barbarie”, nowadays, Chavez, an ignorant soldier, the epitome of “barbarie”, is the one shaping discourses of nation and identity. And that, my friends, is the crux of the problem.

          • this is dedicated to all the “burros jodedores que cogen pa’ la playita, guachafitoso, miss tetas side…
            chiabe will never be able to have any real effect on them/us, thank god. please don’t miss watching it, it explains it all…
            http://bit.ly/gaEO5G

        • yes alek, that’s why i state chiabe is “helping us” clear up our concept of what any venezuelan right now wants for his wellbeing and his standard of living, and that is a totally subjective concept – valid for the one who lives in “la jodedera y el coge___ pa’ la playita” mode & to the one being deadly serious and intense, and every color in between.
          but in the here and now, he’s NOT delivering what the multicolor masses of the majority basically wants/needs/ expects. we, as a country, in general, are increasingly farther away from him, as he’s been trying to force this “emulsión de scott” project of his- of mainly carencias y barbarie- down our happy go lucky guachafita “jodedores pa’ la playita, y pa’ disnei a comeme una jamburguesa” throats.
          and so, my virtual friend, in the end, i feel we may have to eternally thank precisely our happy go lucky “guachafitosa” nature embedded in our DNA as a kryptonite shield against his barbarie de la montonera ways .
          i can’t help thinking of comissioning a statue of chiabe talkin’ talkin’ talkin’ with a finger up in the air, for making such an effort for the pendulum to swing against him. after all, las estatuas son “pa que las c____ las palomas” 😉

          • “and so, my virtual friend, in the end, i feel we may have to eternally thank precisely our happy go lucky “guachafitosa” nature embedded in our DNA as a kryptonite shield against his barbarie de la montonera ways .”

            I disagree. Our guachafitosa nature, o el Chavez que todos llevamos por dentro, is precisely what’s impeding us from realising our potential as a nation. Everyone loves the joda. Everyone. Me too, I put my hands up. But when the joda reaches the top of our priorities scale -tetas plasticas, playa, rumba, pinta, derroche, carro, etc. being part of the joda- and becomes more important than study, work, respect, sense of community, etc. then, I can’t be optimistic, as you are. Our DNA is barbarie, not civilisation. We can not jump from conuco to civilisation with our behavioural baggage. Idiosyncrasy must be changed, and for that change to come along, we need seriously clever people to devise notions of nation and identity. Who/where are they? Alas, I do not know…

          • well m’dear if 90% of a country as civilized, structured, organized, intent, serious, and cultured, and did i say civilized? the crib of wagner, beethoven, mozart, win wenders & the like, blindly followed and marched to the tune of crazy adolf hitler … all i can ask is what can you expect from our jodedor guachafitoso miss tetas ways??? that’s who we are. we cannot become something different right now. assume it’s part of our growing up, chiabe will certainly help us mature somewhat, in time… never to the extent of the civilized europeans, i hope.
            moraimag is very right when she says “estos son los burros que tenemos, y con esos hay que arriar… ” and i can vouch for my sunny optimism, even if i was conceived with the WWII pessimism gene from my dad, who very courageously fought against the nazis. i say bye for short but not for long <3

          • by the way as a parting -for now- comment, where i think you have it wrong, is thinking we all have a chavez por dentro. only in la viveza, but the “guachafitoso, jodedores, coge___, miss tetas pa’ la playita” nature, has got nothing to do with his “soldadito de la monotonera, y de la barbarie” ways . on the contrary, he is always criticizing our shopping and $pending, telenovelas, hair dyes, drinking, and frivolity in general… very ayatollah like is our remnant of this 19th century autocratic wannabee, nada que ver with ours. thankfully and pcisely that’s what saves us from him. that has been the main point of my dissertation.

        • “is the country chiabe wants to give you, the same country you want? is his idea of wellbeing for you X, the same idea of well being you need/want/expect?”

          by the way this should be the democratic candidate’s campaign motto for the 2012 elections, our very own tahir square moment 🙂

  10. Off-topic: Chavez’ name comes off of stadium in Libya…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12682846

    A stadium in eastern Libya named in honour of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been stripped of its title, opposition groups say.

    The Hugo Chavez stadium outside Benghazi has been renamed “Martyrs of February”, in memory of people killed fighting to overthrow the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

  11. Chavez does not have to apply the same methods in order to control people( as does say Gaddafi), because Venezuelans are so easy to control through fear.He doesn’t have to jail half the world when it is sufficient to show a precedent.

    This is even worse in some ways than a straightforward style brutal dictator because he fools a lot of people this way, and it is harder to pin point him.

    This is Chavez’s strongest suit….his sure win.This ties in quite well with the former conversation where folks were talking about the similarities and differences of street marches.Venezuelan marches were tame in comparison to Egyptian ones.Venezuelan marches reflect on the basic passivity and easy to intimidate character of your average Jose.

    Instead of calling one a dictator and the other a hybrid, it makes more sense to me to call one a more brutal dictator and the other a more Machiavellian one.

    The essential quality of a dictator is not his method but rather the achievement of undemocratic power and domination.They impose their wills outside of the law or else they change the law to suit themselves.Bottom line: hace lo que le da la gana sin tener que pedirle permiso a nadie.

    • Latin American leaders learned a long time ago that outright brutality didn’t fly, at least not after the end of the Cold War. However, the more Machiavellian dictatorship style you describe is actually right up our alley, given our predilection for politicking and sinverguenzadas. People don’t have to be rounded up into stadiums any more, simply exiling a few people here or closing a business there is enough to keep the general population just wary enough that no one sticks their neck out. Our dictators, even repressive ones like General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic or Fidel, really are weak when compared to strongmen like Qaddafi who calls out the friggin air force when he needs them. However, they can afford to let their guard down because no one will hold them accountable, and I often wonder why. North Africa is not miles ahead of South America and actually lags in some respects, so why do they defend their rights in the streets while we allow madmen to occupy our presidential palaces?

      • Actually, pre-1950s Trujillo is a poor example of a Machiavellian dictator (killing all the Haitian sugar workers and whatnot) and falls into the “brutal” category. However, Fidel still illustrates the point well: He has settled into a rut where most of society is dissatisfied but waaay too afraid to actually do something about it because they still remember Isla de Pinos in the 1960s.

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