Reading Arendt in Caracas
The year 2006 was the centenary of Hannah Arendt's birth. Conferences and colloquia marked it all around the Western world, from Berlin to Belgrade, from Paris to Prague. Radio and TV documentaries aired on every continent, and new editions and translations of Arendt's books poured into bookstores as her reputation globalized. Clearly, three decades after her death in 1975, Arendt's writings are as compelling as they were to student rebels in America and Western Europe in the late 1960s and to the velvet revolutionaries of Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
As Arendt's biographer, I received many invitations to speak and write about her. But an especially intriguing one came at the year's end, introducing a study group I had never heard of before: the Hannah Arendt Observatorio, based in Caracas, Venezuela. From the home of the Bolivarian Revolution, launched in 1998 by Hugo Chávez, came a plea: Will you come to Caracas for a week and talk with us about Hannah Arendt's theories of totalitarianism and revolution? Chávez was just then, in December 2006, winning his second term as president by a decisive majority--some 60 percent of the electorate.
On June 10 of this year, I set out for Caracas, having educated myself as best I could about the enormously complex political situation there. Everything contemporary that I (a Spanishless reader) found in NYU's library or on the Internet had a point of view, Chavista or anti-Chavista (although there was thoughtful political analysis from, for example, Moises Naim, the Venezuelan-born editor of Foreign Policy). The polarization is as intense in the American media as it is in the Venezuelan, with the New York Times consistently criticizing Chávez editorially-- even applauding the 2002 coup attempt against him--while many in the left blogsphere and on the news site venezuelanalysis.com hail him.
In Venezuela and in America, the war of words had ratcheted up the week before I left. Demonstrations had broken out in Caracas to protest Chávez's decision not to renew the license of an anti-Chavista TV station (RCTV) where, as at all private TV stations in Venezuela, in between the soap operas and the talk-show fare, the coup against him had been promoted and his downfall devoutly desired ever since. But for the first time, the protest marches were organized not by disaffected middle-class opposition party supporters but by students from a dozen public and private universities, including the three--Central University, Catholic University and Simon Bolivar University--where I had been asked to speak. After nearly a decade of little action by students, a movement is emerging.
There are some 200,000 university students in Caracas, including those, mostly pro-Chavista, who attend the eight universities Chávez has created (with plans for more than twenty more). The majority of the students at Central, Catholic and Simon Bolivar are middle class and white--like the American and European students whose 1960s and '80s histories they know--but both the private and public universities have been opening more and more (as the government guarantees financial support and calls for an "open admissions" policy, without qualifying exams). At universities outside Caracas, like the University of the Andes, student organizing in recent years, before the RCTV issue, centered on questions of university governance and how students could have a voice in their own education. I began to think, over the week of my visit, that this movement might have the possibility of reminding the warring elders that a country in which the huge gulf between rich and poor shrinks is in the interests of all its citizens. The question is how this social justice goal should be achieved, and that, as Hannah Arendt always argued, is a political question, a question for political actors--like the students themselves.
Because the war of words and images is so intense, it was obvious to me from the moment I arrived that I was going to have a very Venezuelan experience: I was going to be caught in many crossfires of opinions no matter which way I turned, and I was going to end up watching my every word get swept up in the vortex of a nationwide general anxiety disorder. Everyone I met wanted me to write something about my impressions, "for the outside world" they all said, sounding like asylum inmates appealing to a visiting psychiatrist.
I did want to write this piece, but I had to remind myself (and now you, my reader) where my short-term observation post was located--that is, in and around predominantly anti-Chavista groups. My Observatorio hosts were all anti-Chavista to one degree or another, ranging from disillusioned former Chavistas to academics with ties to European center-left groups like the British Euston Manifesto signers. My association with the Observatorio was complicated by the fact that they had accepted an offer from the US Embassy's speaker's program to fund my visit. Although no pressure was put on me, the Embassy, of course, would have been glad to hear the word "totalitarian" applied to Chávez. Some of the anti-Chavista Observatorio members would also have been glad for Chávez to be called totalitarian, but they would not have wanted to be thought pro- American or in the Embassy's embrace, even though they are critics of the blanket anti-Americanism that is key to Chávez's rhetoric.