by Philip Greenspan
(Swans - May 7, 2007) On the instructions of my orthopedist I had limited my activities for over five weeks since I had fractured my knee. So on the day he allowed me to chuck my crutches and cautiously resume normal activities I attended a lecture by Charles Hardy, who had lived in Venezuela since 1985 when as a Maryknoll priest he was assigned there.
He prefaced the lecture by stating that coming back to the states was like visiting from another planet -- so different was its culture from what he had experienced in Venezuela. On his arrival there Hardy took up residence in a government project in one of the poor barrios on the outskirts of Caracas. His talk, therefore, reflected the views of poor Venezuelans.
Much of his allotted time was devoted to how the media, almost completely controlled by the elite, distort and misrepresent the Chávez government. The wealthy and middle class swallow and savor what's dished out but the overwhelming numbers of poor people, the Chávez constituency, are not taken in.
The mainstream US media -- aligned with Bush's anti-Chávez policy -- disparage him similarly. I was pleased that Hardy employed an example typically applied to tarnish an out-of-favor foreign leader -- mistranslating a foreign language to pervert the meaning of the leader's remark.
He illustrated by citing a Time article that did not spell out an offensive word in either its magazine or online version but clearly implied that Chávez called Bush an "asshole." Several weeks later, Ted Koppel on Nightline confronted Chávez. "You called Bush an asshole." "I've said various things about him. I don't know if I actually used that word," was Chávez's translated reply. The word in question, "pendejo," is defined in Latin America as "stupid, fool, tiny brain, subject to deception." Hardy did some digging to find the source of this widely publicized mistranslation: a couple of reporters at Reuters. They claimed the definition appears in an Oxford dictionary but never responded when pressed for the edition!
Hardy's talk touched on the difference in religious practices, the conditions confronting the poor, the new constitution, the attempts to oust Chávez, and on the opposition. I was gripped by his lecture, but it ended too quickly to satisfy me so I bought his recently published book, Cowboy in Caracas (Charles Hardy, Cowboy in Caracas: A North American's Memoir of Venezuela's Democratic Revolution, Curbstone Press, Willimantic, CT, 2007). Nothing else I've read on Chávez's Venezuela portrays it from the perspective of the poor -- those desperate but hopeful people who responded to the 2002 coup and restored him to power. The author's bottom-up view instead of the conventional top-down view gives the book the unique touch employed by Howard Zinn.
The book is well written and easy to read, and I heartily recommend it. It relates his experiences chronologically from 1985 when he arrived there during the rule of the oligarchy through the takeover by Chávez, the coup by the elite, his miraculous return to power, their failed strike, and the failed referendum to remove him.
Hardy's Venezuela home was a "temporary" cardboard barrack shack that had already stood there for over ten years. Describing his arrival, he states:
I had just stepped onto a mountain of fecal matter. I don't think there was a square inch of Terrace B that had not been tainted by human or animal excrement at some time. The problem was threefold: lack of running water, lack of toilets, and lack of enclosed sewers. In front of my door, a stream of black water carried the sewage from my neighbors' dwellings to the miniature black river behind my house. Soon I would cease to notice the stench. That day I did...
What does one do to take care of basic necessities when there are no toilets and no open fields? Urinating was no problem. Each home had a corner from which the urine ran below the cardboard wall and into a canal. But to defecate? It was senseless to use something like a potty since there was always a scarcity of water with which to clean it afterwards.
What the inhabitants did was use newspaper. We would squat over the paper, defecate, wrap it up, and throw the newspaper with its contents down the hillside on which the terrace was located, or up the hillside behind my house....
Water arrived on Terrace B in tank trucks with the words "DRINKING WATER" PAINTED ON THEIR SIDES. They were old and dirty and the hoses that carried the water to our barrels were equally disgusting. We had to pay for each barrel of water. The price was much, much higher than what the wealthy in other parts of town paid for the same quantity which they received through their faucets....
We never knew when the trucks would return. Sometimes more than a month passed without water....
Not having sufficient water and not knowing when it might come again was like torture... (ibid., pages 10-11)
How do people exist day after day under such abominable conditions?
On one occasion we went to the press to have our complaint printed. The day following publication of the article the head of the water department issued a statement saying that our complaint was not based on reality. He said that every day he sent two trucks full of water to Terrace B. It was one of my first experiences with how the press was, and still is, used to serve the dominant interests... (Ibid., page 11)
One day I went downtown and saw a woman washing her sidewalk with a hose. I approached her and asked her how she could do that when people in the barrios didn't have any water. She looked at me as if I were from another planet. I was.
...to those who have water, water is simply water. But to those who don't, it is a symbol of revolution...
But water was only one of the multiple of symbols. Just leaving the barrio was a kind of psychological torture. Imagine a woman leaving the barrio to work in a wealthy person's home as a cook...
...she goes shopping in a modern supermarket for the family she works for. She sees fruit, vegetables, and meat superior to what she could buy in the barrio and at more economical prices. Subconsciously even fruit, vegetables and meat become symbols of revolution.... (ibid., pages 20-22)
The country was ripe for revolution! On February 16, 1989, a newly elected president, Carlos Andrés Pérez, under pressure of the International Monetary Fund, announced his new economic policy, Ten days later gasoline prices increased and jacked up bus fares. Riots, looting, a police reaction, and an undetermined number of deaths ensued into March. A death toll possibly surpassing the Tiananmen Square massacre was soft-pedaled by the media since the US looked favorably on that Venezuelan government. A roaring inflation within a few weeks shot the price of bread up 600 percent, yes you read it right, six-hundred percent! and was the spark that popped Chávez onto the scene in 1992, when his coup attempts failed.
...He [Chávez] accepted responsibility and he said that, por ahora (for now), the objectives were not attainable (ibid., page 40)
Within days POR AHORA appeared on walls throughout the city. His expanding popularity in the presidential election that followed his release from prison impelled the opposition parties to unite behind a single candidate. Their well-financed, no holds barred, dirty campaign was unable to prevent a Chávez landslide win!
A new constitution was promised in that campaign. Within a year a referendum to hold a convention was approved. Members, 90 percent of whom were Chávez supporters, were elected. And the proposed constitution was approved by over 70 percent of those voting. (ibid., pages 48-49)
The constitution captivated the people and they discuss it quite frequently Copies published as a small book are carried about and perused. Two words within it, participatory democracy, have had a profound impact. It differs from representative democracy, which delegates your governing rights to your chosen representatives to one where
...all citizens, not just elected officials, have a right to be involved in the governing process.
...all citizens, not just elected officials, have a right to know what is going on in their country and to determine what is to be done. (ibid., pages 91-92)
It is undeniable that Chávez has the whole-hearted support of those poor Venezuelans. The opposition is aware of it. Many have left the country and perhaps will -- like the Miami Cubans -- seek to overthrow him from exile. But they will have no more success than those Miamians.
When upper-class readers of El Universal saw the picture of the woman seated on the curb with a sign reading, "Hungry and unemployed but I will stick with Chávez to the end," many might have laughed at the scene. But the hundreds of thousands of people who were also present were serious, and the smiles on their faces as they carried signs and chanted those words seemed to reflect what they truly felt.
Maybe they were hungry. Maybe they were unemployed. But they had hope. For some reason that was more important than anything else. (ibid., page 161)
I grew up in the 1930s during FDR's New Deal days. Most people did not benefit directly from government programs but they felt that Roosevelt was on their side and that things would get better. Like the poor Venezuelans, they too had hope.
If you appreciate and enjoy our work, pleasefinancially.