Reading Arendt in Caracas
Under Chávez's leadership, a group of military officers made their coup attempt in February 1992, unsuccessfully. Another group, which some say was directed by Chávez from his prison cell, followed suit in November of that year, again unsuccessfully. The Punto Fijo government finally began to collapse from within when the Congress impeached Andres Perez on corruption charges--finally a triumph for democracy. Chávez returned to the scene as a presidential candidate and won handily in 1998. His calls for constitutional reform, for rooting out corruption and for empowerment of the people, reverberated through the barrios and brought many thousands into the streets to cheer him on. The Constitution his government adopted in 1999 proclaimed, in heady, hypertheoretical language, "participatory and protagonic democracy."
Some in the left-leaning universities voted for Chávez; many more were skeptical. Among the skeptics was Teodoro Petkoff, an economist and founder of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), to which most of the Hannah Arendt Observatorio members belonged in the 1990s. Petkoff had started off his political life under the Perez Jimenez military dictatorship, when he was a guerrilla fighter and did a few stints in prison. Those years made him permanently suspicious of military men in politics, even ones proclaiming participatory democracy, not state socialism. "They bring along their habit of hierarchy, of not listening, their love to give orders to followers who do not question," Petkoff told me when I met him after my Catholic University talk, which had taken place in a hall that bore a wonderful inscription above its door: "Use your ears here, that's why it's called an auditorium."
Listening to Petkoff's assessment, I kept remembering the handmade signs that the Catholic University students had put up all over their campus, a sampler of advice from luminaries as diverse as Gandhi and Nietzsche, Locke and Miguel de Unamuno. In the corridor outside the philosophy department, groups of students studied a series of exhibition panels telling the story of the White Rose, a student resistance group that had perished fighting the Nazis. This is a generation hungry for examples; its published statements about freedom of speech and participatory democracy quote the Port Huron Statement, the SDS manifesto of 1962.
"What you have said about Hannah Arendt's theory on how totalitarianism depends on the secret police and turns bureaucrats into murderers," Petkoff remarked as I questioned him about what the emergent student movement signals, "confirms me in my judgment that this regime is not, as you say, concentration camp totalitarianism of the twentieth-century sort, but I do think it is totalitarianism for the twenty-first century. I call it 'totalitarianism-lite.'" He went on to focus his concern on how the regime is taking over all areas of civil society, limiting dissent, sponsoring doctrinaire bureaucrats, many of them military officers, and now threatening the autonomy of the universities.
Petkoff was one of the few anti-Chavistas I met who was able to be witty about the man he kept calling Comandante, because Petkoff is one of the few who has publicly proclaimed a contrasting vision for Venezuelan "socialism in the twenty-first century." In the 2006 election campaign, he ran for president as a democratic socialist, someone whose policy preferences would make sense to people familiar with Poland's Solidarity, except he knows that Venezuela has a poverty problem far more extreme than anything even the Eastern European social democrats have to face and that Venezuela has a legacy of being in an imperialist orbit that did not come to a crashing end as the Warsaw Pact did.
The students I met at the next stop on my university tour--which was at the beautiful Simon Bolivar University, a botanical oasis in the urban sprawl that is Caracas--did not seem very aware of the programs favored by Petkoff or by the opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, to whom Petkoff gave his support in order not to split the anti- Chávez vote in 2006. The vice-rector of Simon Bolivar, a chemical engineer, explained to me that Rosales had suggested, for example, issuing low-income Venezuelans a ration card--called a "blackie," after the color of unrefined oil--that they could use only for food, healthcare and education rather than making direct money grants to them, as Chávez does. The idea was to redistribute petro-wealth through a system more rational, more immune to corruption and more likely to support--in combination with a microcredit program--the poor working their way out of poverty. But this proposal, like the opposition candidate himself, a man unfortunately associated with the 2002 coup against Chávez, which had hardly been a great moment for democracy, lacked the charisma of El Presidente and his munificence with government funds. "The opposition," I had been told by one of the idealistic student leaders--a young woman who would have cheered the heart of Dorothy Day--"is like you have in America: not strong, not taking risks, having too much money. The opposition here is not understanding that the poor people are angry at the people with money, and Chávez speaks this anger for them." She has no trouble with Chávez's ends, only with his means, which she described to me as "sacrificing our democracy to his socialism." We had quite an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic. "But you have to tell," she challenged me, "what is the guarantee that people in a constitutional republic will be responsible to the poor?"
This student's good question came from her experience as the first child in her family to get to a university. But my impression was that her concern for social justice and her critique of the anti-Chavista opposition parties were widely shared; she had no party affiliation, and neither did any of the other students I met. They do not speak for the opposition but against media control and against any threat to the autonomy of the universities.