Reading Arendt in Caracas
The Hannah Arendt Observatorio was formed in 2005, triggered into existence when Chávez reached out to embrace the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as his revolutionary brother and then used the term "Christ-killers" in a speech. (As is usual in Venezuela, a debate followed the speech about whether Chávez had used the term for Jews or used it, ironically, for enemies among the oil-enriched Venezuelan elites who would like to kill him; and it should be noted that Chávez did not go on to imitate his revolutionary brother's habit of making undebatably anti-Semitic statements and indulging in Holocaust denial.) The Observatorio was led by Heinz Sonntag, an emeritus professor of sociology, German-born and educated, thus very sensitive to "the Jewish question." He had been teaching in Caracas since the late 1960s, when he had found the Venezuelan universities quite comfortably Marxist. In the 1950s, while Venezuela was stagnating under a military dictator, Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, the universities had become the seat of opposition, and they remained so even after Perez Jimenez was displaced in 1958 by a civilian democratic regime that inaugurated a forty-year period of relative stability and prosperity--for some. The public Central University, founded in 1721, where I gave my first talk, had opened its new campus as the welcome democracy began: an architecturally unified park studded with Henry Moore and Jean Arp sculptures, graced with a stained-glass mural made by Ferdinand Léger and an aula magna hung with acoustic panels from the atelier of Alexander Calder. Caracas was going to rival the postwar reconstructed European cities.
By the time the younger members of the Hannah Arendt Observatorio, now in their 40s, were students in the impressive autonomous universities like Central, the democratic regime was growing more and more rigid, unresponsive and oligarchic. It had come into being with a pact--called the Pacto de Punto Fijo--in which the three main democratic parties formed an alliance excluding the rest, among them the Communists who had also opposed Perez Jimenez. I noted in my lecture that they had made a grand coalition not unlike the one that had emerged in Germany during the 1960s, which Arendt had sharply labeled a "two-party dictatorship" and faulted for its tendency to rely on old friends of Hitler. Venezuela's Punto Fijo government eroded not just the political sphere, as the German one did, but the economic sphere as well. Rising oil prices brought a vast increase in petroleum wealth for the Venezuelan elites, with the corollary result that vast barrios sprang up precariously on the steep hillsides of Caracas, where millions of people had no running water, little in the way of healthcare and limited access to education. American corporations from the Eisenhower era forward bought billions in cheap oil from the Venezuelan plantation instead of developing America's own energy sources, and to this day, more than half of Venezuela's total exports go to the States (and about a third of its imports come from the States).
In the late 1960s, I told the students at Central, Arendt had identified coalition party oligarchies as the key problem of the Western European and American nation-states; political participation was stifled rather than erased, as it had been in the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, which turned their bureaucrats into organizers of mass murder. In America, she had lamented, the Democrats and Republicans had converged on the political center and made common cause to support the illegal Vietnam War (a pattern they repeated in 2003 with Iraq). Protest did finally arise from outside the party system, energized by the student movement, but Arendt had warned in Crises of the Republic that the sclerotic party system (and associated declining civil service) would be hard to reform, as it was reinforced by America's dedication to a "permanent war economy" and to a habit of mistaking violence for power--that is, of resorting to military force to solve political problems. She had been a consistent critic of the use of the American military and CIA to establish spheres of influence--including, crucially, in Latin America--during the cold war.
In Venezuela popular (not student) protest against the political sclerosis and economic injustice of Puntofijismo did not come until 1989, the year the Berlin wall toppled. The trigger was a decision made by then-President Carlos Andres Perez, who, having spent the regime into dangerous inflation, called for austerity measures that fell most heavily on the poor, who were a large portion of the fast- expanding population. The barrios of Caracas exploded. People who had almost nothing rejected, as it were, taxation without representation, particularly when it came from a government that had grown rich and corrupt on the nationalization of the major oil company (known by its initials, PDVSA).
In 1989 the rioting, called the Caracazo, left several hundred people dead and set the stage for new political actors to emerge. What Arendt called a "revolutionary space" had been opened, but at first little happened (and the campuses were quiet). Hugo Chávez, then a lieutenant colonel in the military, took the opportunity to prepare himself for future leadership by enrolling for a graduate degree in political science, choosing as his mentor a future member of the Hannah Arendt Observatorio, Friedrich Welsch, another emigre from Germany, who remembered the earnest young man's first day of class well: "He came in uniform, with his pistol, and I told him either the pistol is left outside the door or he will be outside himself, along with the pistol. He told me he is an officer and cannot be without his pistol. But then, when I did not give in, he left, gave the pistol to his aide-de-camp and returned. After that, he was very attentive, a good student, in the top tenth of his classes." He wanted to write a thesis on what political scientists call "transitology," taking as his case study Spain in its transition away from Franco's Fascist government. But when the moment seemed right to attempt a coup, the thesis was put aside. "I obviously did not get him converted to democratic socialism or even to democratic methods," Welsch told me with his characteristic ironic smile, "although he read a lot of democratic theorists--not, then, Hannah Arendt--and he was not, at the time, so interested in the Cuban model."