Reading Arendt in Caracas
This seems to be a type of revolution that progresses--or actually regresses--by two main means. First, the laws of the land change constantly, so that no one knows what the law is--you have to tune in to the president's briefings for news. The most serious changes are the decrees challenging the Constitution itself, which have altered the legislative, judiciary, executive and citizens-support branches, filling up the government with Chavistas. This is a process that could end in one-party dictatorship, because Chávez is now insisting that all the Chavista parties combine into one, a grand coalition like the ones Arendt warned about, which will be stifling even for his own followers--a potentially disastrous blocking of new life in the revolution itself. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for election in 2012, bypassing a previously established term limit.
Along with this regression from the political ideal--the Constitution--goes the possibility that economic policies, formulated by the government, will circumscribe political action by the citizens, controlling them not with overt or covert violence, as happens in most revolutions that start rigidifying, but with money. This is not to say that the regime avoids violence--the first big student demonstration in May was met with tear gas and plastic bullets, very brutally. The vice-rector of Simon Bolivar University described to me in horrified detail how one of her students had been shot at close range: A policeman put his gun right to the downed student's hand and then to his leg so that both were shattered from within by plastic bullets designed to be used at a distance. Arms importation is booming, and there are huge numbers of small arms in militia hands (and, of course, this means that many weapons make their way into the growing criminal arena, where thefts and homicides are on the rise). But on a day-to-day basis, the danger is more that the Bolivarian Revolution will operate increasingly like a perverse bank; it is, like Iran's, what might be called a Resources Revolution, one keyed to the world-historical moment in which those who control natural resources can spend independently of the wealthy elites they have overthrown. Chávez, the petro-revolutionary, does not have to pay any attention to people who grew wealthy--or even just got technically and professionally educated--under the Punto Fijo regime.
Much of the money has gone into the creation of a kind of alternative society, and more controversy surrounds this development than any other, making it the hardest dimension of the revolution for an outsider to assess. The government directly funds hundreds of so- called misiones in communities. The missions do provide employment and bring food (delivered in military trucks), healthcare (aided by Cuban doctors) and education directly to the people, which is surely a good thing; but they are not like the revolutionary councils that have sprung up, Arendt noted, in all revolutions, constituting the people's forums for ongoing political participation (until they were, time and again, crushed by parties aspiring to total control). Despite a lot of rhetoric about participatory democracy, the missions are not political formations that could reform local, city and provincial governments, making them more responsive to the grassroots, and they have alienated rather than inspired the country's labor unions because they are run and firmly controlled from the center, often quite literally from Chávez's office. No totalitarian military and secret police bureaucracy has been built up in Venezuela, but a controlled service sector has, and a rerun of centralized state socialism will ensue unless the political problem is grasped by the Chavistas, by the anti- Chavistas or, more likely, by the students, who are grassroots political actors and not caught up in haggling about whether the missions have, in statistical terms, benefited the poor or not, at what cost and how efficiently or inefficiently.
Several university economists told me that oil production is now declining and the government is moving into a period of deficit spending--with the consequent inflation. PDVSA has continued to generate sufficient wealth for Chávez to hope to pay down Venezuela's debts, seeking to free it from the "neoliberal imperialism" of the United States and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. He has the money to set up trade agreements with Latin American neighbors, without the Free Trade Area of the Americas. All of this is undoubtedly good (and appreciated by the neighbors who share the vision of a more independent Latin America), but it raises questions about whether and how the economic alliances are going to influence the political alliances among equals that will be needed if some form of Latin American Union is ever to be born.
The students with whom I talked about Arendt's praise in On Violence for the American and European student movements of the 1960s--and her staunch critique of the worship of economic solutions and of the violence that marred the movement--were very interested in her views on how a protest movement could become a movement for lasting change. I portrayed Arendt as an advocate of genuine power- creating participatory democracy, which she thought fostered a kind of immunity to violence and to the confusion of power and violence, and this struck a chord. The students go out to demonstrate in black T-shirts with white handprints front and back, and they paint their palms white so they can hold them up to the police and the military, signifying "don't attack us, we're not attacking you." (Chávez certainly gets this, as he has among his aides a professional semiologist!) I met a young woman, an art student making her political debut as a T-shirt designer, who told me, tearfully, that she is so "hurt in my heart" because Chávez says the students are spoiled rich white kids who are "puppets of imperialism." "What do I do? I do not want my parents to think I cannot act for myself! And we want the Chavistas to believe us, to unite with us--because we want to help them, too. We are all socialists."