Reading Arendt in Caracas
While the anti-Chavista students I met are not identified with party goals, most of the anti-Chavista adults I talked with are, and they are informed by an experience of personal security during the Punto Fijo regime followed by fear of the barbarians at the gates. I was told time and again that Chávez has his shirts and suits-- many, many suits ("like Imelda Marcos's shoes")--tailored on Savile Row, that he collects expensive watches, that his family has enriched itself with money and thousands upon thousands of hectares of land, that he has a slush fund for patronage purposes, that he is nepotistic (his brother Adan is the minister of education, his father a state governor, two more bothers hold high-ranking government positions). In short, I was told, Chávez is no different from the standard Latin American caudillo. Many such ad hominem commentaries about Chávez were offered to me, but I was also assured that Venezuelans do not gossip in the American manner: "We do not care whether he has girlfriends or boyfriends or no friends, like you do when you make politicians into celebrities; but we care very much if he is a hypocrite or if he is crazy." These kinds of criticisms of American society--true as they may be--struck me as displacements, justifications for focusing on Chávez as a personality and not on the state of the state or the disorder of the opposition. None of the students I met go in for these kinds of struggles to control images of Chávez past or present or to write or rewrite history. Their focus is on right now, and the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez is something that happened when they were 15.
Some of the students did think Chávez is a bit crazy, however-- but like a fox. The students, of a generation ever alert to "performativity," see the enormous appeal of the story Chávez tells, a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps tale of being a child of poverty who was boarded out to his grandmother (the sainted Mama Rosinas) and then worked his way up through high school (playing an excellent game of baseball on the way) and into the military, suffering depressing setbacks along the way (like his failed coup and the coup attempt against him) but persevering while helping others, like himself, to rise. He is a mirror for the wretched of the earth, and they are joyous when he succeeds at being the vulnerable ideal he projects. This is not plain-old populist machismo; it is vulnerable, folksy, charming machismo. When Chávez returned to Venezuela after one of his many trips to Cuba--where he seems to go to consult his mentor, Fidel Castro, whenever he has suffered a setback, as he did when the students demonstrated so effectively against him--he portrayed Fidel, too, as both invincible and vulnerable. I read in the Daily Journal, a pro-Chávez English-language paper, that he had announced: "Fidel is recovering well--he could not go out on the diamond and throw his old fastball, but he is back in the game."
After his 1992 coup attempt failed, Chávez went on TV for a moment that became legendary among his followers--a moment of vulnerability and strength. He made a concession speech, but he inserted into it two words of defiance: "for now" the coup is finished, he said, before he went off to jail. Friedrich Welsch told me that Chávez had thought about trying to write his thesis in prison, but when that plan proved impossible he went on an eclectic reading program that added to his theoretical vocabulary a lot of words of wisdom from the classic socialist and Communist tracts and prison memoirs. To this day, fifteen years later, Chávez quotes a library of brother revolutionaries, from his number-one historical hero, Simon Bolivar, to his number-one contemporary hero, Fidel Castro, along with an odd assortment of American and European leftists. On the day of my arrival at Simon Bolivar University, El Presidente discoursed on TV for an interminable half-hour on Antonio Gramsci before turning to a mixture of grandiose self-reference and policy wonkese.
The hodgepodge of quotations that Chávez disseminates in his regular addresses (which all the networks are obliged by law to air) and his weekly television appearance--a call-in show known as Alo, Presidente!--is symptomatic of the hodgepodge of his policies. His is a type of revolution not anticipated in Hannah Arendt's 1963 book On Revolution, I suggested to my audience at the Simon Bolivar University, one of the most active outposts of the emergent student movement. (The campus has huge parking lots full of Minis with their back windows painted playfully "I am free speech!" and "I am the spirit of liberty!") When Chávez and his followers won the 1998 election, they produced a truly remarkable American-style Constitution based on checks and balances, which calls for five branches of government, one of which is dedicated to oversight of the government through an ombudsman and a general prosecutor. But the Constitution did not put as effective a check on executive power as it might have, and almost as soon as it was printed in little portable editions to be distributed free to millions of Venezuelans, who took to carrying it at all times and quoting it, Chávez began to obscure it with decrees and laws that are never challenged as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which was itself unconstitutionally expanded so that it could be packed with his appointees. Not satisfied to control the court, in 2000 Chávez got the unicameral Assembly to, in effect, erase its power by granting him a year of nonconsultative decision-making (in European history this kind of antidemocratic achievement is known as an enabling law, or Ermachtigungsgesetz). Chávez's political critics in the universities are alarmed that the Bolivarian Constitution is being ignored or undermined, and the constitutional lawyer who did most of the drafting has turned anti-Chavista.