Caracas is a rumbustious city, but yesterday, Tuesday 5th of March, it was shot through with a hard and contagious silence. Not only in the working class neighbourhoods, but also, for different reasons, in the more comfortable zones of the city, where during recent weeks they had celebrated the bad news on the health of the President. The announcement from Vice-President Nicolás Maduro established an advance wake, which was then confirmed by his appearance in the afternoon. From then on, Venezuela began to sink into a serene lament, those workers who had not already done so finished up at work, the informal vendors were closing early, the cars, in the traffic jams, sounded their horns less, and everyday people began to gather in the Bolívar squares of each municipality.
The pained but serene atmosphere of the gatherings contrasts with the gabbling of “experts” from the Spanish media oligopoly –the range of media concentrated in a few firms that liberalism calls freedom of expression- who, in complete agreement, could scarcely contain their excitement in imagining transitions and blank slates in Venezuela. The old colonial pretension of giving lessons in democracy, however, is becoming ever more implausible. The Spanish population is currently undergoing a veritable social drama, and the fracture in its political and economic elites, as well as the social, economic and territorial unviability of the historic national project of its domestic lumpen-oligarchy, is starting to open up considerable breaches in the regime that was born out of the Constitution of 1978. A highly discredited Government, which was elected with less than half of the popular support received by the one in Venezuela, is undertaking an aggressive adjustment programme that punishes middle and working class sectors, one that was not in its electoral programme and which it is executing on the orders of economic powers that were not elected by the citizens, and which they are moreover placing beyond any public debate. The protests from the impoverished social majority are dealt with by getting the police to beat and arrest hundreds of people, and the mass media is practically closed off from the real country, whilst functioning as a permanent loudspeaker for the values, language and interpretations of the ruling elites. It does not look like a CV that would allow one to give too many lessons in democracy.
And yet, it is still surprising to witness the feeling of superiority that permits particularly mediocre elites to denigrate the Venezuelan political process. Let us examine some of their arguments. Since they are unable to impugn the democratic legitimacy of the political system with any seriousness, they turn to a tool that the powerful, significantly, use with increasing frequency in Europe: Chávez is a ‘populist’ leader. It does not matter that none of those who use the term are able to supply a convincing definition for it – the power of the term lies precisely in its viscosity.
The problem is that its overuse can start to reveal the stitching in the political conception that lies behind it, a conviction of liberal and not democratic origins that maintains democracy can be abused if there is an excitement of the ‘base passions’ that afflict the masses due to their nature but never the privileged minority sectors. This argument, according to which the irruption of the plebs into politics can threaten democracy, is based on a reasoning that can lead to censitary suffrage (to prevent the ‘demagoguery’ that excites the poor) or to the low intensity democracies of the West in which the principal decisions and institutions that govern social life (the economy, the media, judicial power, the armed forces etc) are kept safely beyond the reach of popular sovereignty, and remain de facto spaces reserved for privileged minorities.
The case against Chávez continues with two arguments directly related to the previous one. On the one hand, they criticise the leadership relation whilst at the same time they denigrate as a ‘clown’ a President who had the audacity to resemble those who elected him. That is why Spain is governed by a land registrar, whilst in Venezuela, the likely next president, if the Venezuelans place their trust in him, will be a former urban bus driver. European societies also seem to be tiring of serious and grey tie-wearing gentlemen who govern according to the dictates of the richest, whilst Latin America is filling up with tie-less presidents, workers, former guerrillas, peasants, Indians and mestizos. There are those who do not yet grasp that this is not simply rotation, but represents a change of epoch. This criticism of leadership, shared by certain sectors of the left, forgets that every relation of leadership is one of representation, and as such carries with it a sense of negotiation and tension: in democratic contexts, a person will lead in so far as he or she embodies and satisfies the longings of the social whole, and ceases to do so when the latter withdraws its support. In the case of Chávez, this support came from those sectors that were poorest and racialised as inferior –blacks, mestizos- which, by virtue of a new social contract, obtained an unprecedented expansion of social rights, of their sovereignty, of their inclusion. From the material conquests to the symbolic ones, which are no less important: “When I was a child at school I was ashamed of my nose, because it was a black girl’s nose, until Chávez came along”, a friend told me the other day. These are the sectors that today make up the hegemonic majority identity in Venezuela: Chavism, which has managed to move the country’s axis of gravity toward the left and in the favour of the popular sectors. Those who do not understand this forget, either by will or ignorance, that political identities are forged across the most diverse of references. In Venezuela, after a radical dislocation of the traditional meanings of belonging, a massive popular realignment took place that has crystallised around the name of Chávez.
On the other hand, the prevailing liberal discourse tends to adduce that in Venezuela there exists a major ‘polarisation’. Oddly, such criticisms could not be read when Venezuela’s poverty rate in 1999 stood at 49.7% (it is now 27.8%, the country with the third lowest poverty rate in the continent), and extreme poverty at 25%, now 7% of the population, according to CEPAL data. Was the country of 1999 less polarised than the one today? Hence polarisation does not occur in a country when a minority lives in luxury whilst the majority goes hungry, but rather whenever two or more political options stand for opposing models of how a country should be run. This would be a democratic absurdity unless we add the key ingredient: there is always polarisation whenever there is a defeat for the political options linked to the economic oligarchy, endangered by the redistribution of wealth and recovery of national and popular sovereignty over wealth and natural resources. Imagine if to this we add the oil that no longer swells bank accounts in the United States or Panama and instead funds medicines, pensions, universities and homes. Absolute polarisation. And demagoguery. The Venezuelan example is an insult for the elites; those at the bottom can put together a majority identity, constitute themselves as a people and identify the interests of the country with their own, in order to govern themselves. And resist a lockout, the bullying of imperial powers, and a coup d’état. It is important to note that all of this would have been impossible without massive popular support, without an overwhelming political enthusiasm, but also, due to no lack of painful experiences, the support of the majority of the Armed Forces, which are characterised by a plebeian and progressive composition. Without them, Chávez would have been another Salvador Allende, more ‘aesthetic’ for certain left forces, but of less use to his people.
And now, what is going to happen in Venezuela? Unfortunately for the apologists of chaos, the road is laid out by the Constitution and the popular will. It is worth remembering: there are no transitions in democratic systems. There will be elections in the short term and political power will once again reflect democratic preferences that have been freely expressed. As has been the case in 14 years with 17 electoral processes and the practice of direct democracy in local and labour institutions. The problem is that the privileged may not like the verdict.
There remain, of course, many tasks to be completed and mistakes to be corrected in Venezuela. It is only imaginary political processes that are exempt from problems, limits, ugliness. Of course, in exchange for this, they only ever exist as wishes. However, as the Uruguayan president José Mujica says, those who aspire to change things have to be able to improve the life of ordinary people whilst they try to change everything. Anything else is bar-stool revolutions.
The Venezuelan political process, which many of its people call revolution, has confronted many tasks simultaneously: the conquest of national sovereignty, transforming the inherited oligarchic state and building a machine of inclusion and production of a new order, of new public policies for the social majority, immediately redistributing wealth and defeating misery, breaking with the dependency on primary exports and widening the economic base, changing a popular culture that is consumerist and individualist and generating a new imaginary to accompany social transformations, etc. All of this in a context of a democratic accountability more intense and more frequent than in any European country, with not always peaceful disputes of political power, and tough resistance from receding oligarchs. That is why they are processes with holes, incomplete and insufficient. But they are alive, in the hands of their peoples. Expanding social justice, decommodifying necessities, producing a new country, of people who are more equal and hence more free.
That is why those who trust in death, to fulfil their hopes of winning what they never could by seducing the majority, are wrong. His loss is painful, all the more so after having listened to him, admired him, written to him and touched him. But he dies having sown himself: Chávez has changed Venezuela and Latin America, first of all in the imaginary of its peoples. When in the streets of Caracas hundreds of thousands shout “I am Chávez’ or “Chávez is a people” they are not engaged in rhetoric; they are celebrating that this name is now common to all, that it designates a popular bloc that today is driving the State and opening up a new political time that is more just and more democratic.