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(en) .Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder - Prepared by Nachie, for the Red & Anarchist Action Network (RAAN) V. (5/9)

Date Thu, 06 Jul 2006 08:54:49 +0300


17. ALIX SANTANA Y LOS ARTESANOS DE CARABOBO
Shortly after having ditched the disintegrating encampment at
Vinicio Adames a day before the official start of the FSM, I made my
way to Caobos Park to find a suitable place to sleep during the events
of the coming week. What immediately caught my eye upon
entering the park was a cluster of tents surrounded by trees around
which yellow "caution" tape was wrapped; a Venezuelan flag was
hanging from one of the tents. Upon closer investigation, I was met
by an energetic woman who introduced herself as Alix Santana, the
"leader" of a small contingent of self-employed street artisans from
Carabobo State. She asked if I was prepared to share whatever food I
had, and when I replied, "well, this is the World Social Forum, after
all!" I was gladly welcomed into their campsite.

Alix and the majority of her comrades belonged to a group known as
the Association of Artists and Artisans of the San Diego Valley,
which is a municipality of Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state and
site of Bolívar's decisive battle for the nation's independence.
Artesanos, which in most cases refers to those who manufacture
their own necklaces, bracelets, and other items by hand and sell
them on the street (usually to tourists) to make a living make up a
huge percentage of Venezuela's informal economy. Across the
country, the people's strong tradition and identification with the
visual arts has inspired the creation of Bolivarian artisan "fronts" and
a healthy commitment by the government towards developing
national culture and identity through them.

Alix's group (which in accordance with the stipulations regarding
public funding, is arranged as a nonprofit with an elected and
legally-responsible president, etc.) received 42 million Bolivars from
the state last year for the organization of several art workshops
throughout her community, and like RASH had a pro-active view on
how to take advantage of the government's cultural initiatives in
order to advance the revolution. In fact I would say that from my
limited experience, the Bolivarian Government's music and art
programs seemed to be exceptionally well geared towards
empowering local communities, though of course the content and
execution of those programs are kept under tight vigilance - the
government wants to know what its money is being used for, of
course.

Alix was the first Venezuelan I met who actually did carry a tiny blue
copy of the Bolivarian Constitution in her pocket, and would
sometimes pull it out whenever making a point during our
discussions. Despite this constitutional fetish I would hesitate to call
her anything other than a true revolutionary, as when I asked if she
was a Chavista she replied, "I am not a Chavista, nor am I a
Bolivarian. I am a revolutionary. I see reality, Chavistas see only
Chávez. Like you, I am studying the truth, the overall situation. I
am studying the man. The man is not the revolution, but if Chávez
fell tomorrow, I would go to prison. If there is a chance for
revolution, the space for the development of revolution, right now
it's because Chávez is in power. I defend the man, but not his
mistakes."

The Artist's Association had been present at the First Encounter of
Bolivarian Artisans the year before, a "cultural" pole that drew up an
11-point Manifesto Artesanal del Estado Carabobo relating to the
immediate demands of the organized artist's movement. The
manifesto's proposals related to the need for Venezuela to reclaim its
cultural sovereignty, and that this could only be accomplished
through direct community participation in artistic development and
local control over the tourism industry. For Alix and those like her,
being a street artisan often means a direct confrontation with the
state, which views them as riffraff and as a general rule does not
allow for such wares as theirs to be sold on the street except in very
specific areas, usually away from the public eye. The crux of her
struggle, therefore, is for the legitimization of her trade in the eyes of
the state and a greater appreciation for the role of the artisan in
defining national culture. Their group has presented the Manifesto
Artesanal before the Carabobo state legislature, which then
suggested that they take the proposals to the National Assembly.
Although we would eventually learn that their audience there was
cancelled, (which was a bummer, because they were planning on
bringing me along) Alix and about six others from the Association
who had traveled to Caracas for the purpose were still extremely
excited about being at the FSM and having a chance to connect their
personal visions of revolution with those of people from around the
world.

Once I had been accepted into their campsite, the Artisans asked if I
had a flag with me to hang up next to the Venezuelan one they
already had prominently displayed. I hesitated only long enough so
as to explain that I did have a flag, but it wasn't exactly that of any
country, before pulling out the red and black anarcho-communist
standard. They were fascinated by this flag they had never seen
before, and proudly hung it up next to their own as a symbol of
nascent solidarity between movements. Undoubtedly, there are those
within the libertarian movement who would question the integrity of
my displaying a symbol of anarchy next to the Venezuelan national
flag, to which I can only reply, "are you fucking serious?" Such
ignorance is born firstly out of a lack of respect for the
self-determination of others in the right to define their own methods
and avenues of struggle, secondly from never having encountered
anyone outside of their own ideological ghetto, and lastly from a
Northern protest culture that, as I stated in the Bolivanarchism
essay, shows an inability to "consider struggles in which the national
flag does not necessarily represent embarrassment, oppression, and
genocide."

The members of the Association certainly did not view their national
flag as a symbol of oppression, and in the context of the societal
awakening through which the Venezuelan masses are passing, there
is no reason to have expected them to. I had many discussions with
my newfound comrades regarding the nature of "patria o muerte", a
popular slogan of the revolution that has been imported directly from
Castro's Cuba. The Northern media continually translates this cry as
"fatherland or death", which is a gross oversimplification tied to the
need for imperialism to vilify the Bolivarian Government. Shoddy
translation has often been used in propaganda campaigns against
Chávez, the best example probably being when he called George
W. Bush a "pendejo" (uneducated person) and it was reported as
"asshole". The treatment of "patria o muerte" is similarly confused,
and to a degree we must expect this since the concept of patria has
no exact English equivalent. Nevertheless the specific use of
"fatherland" (particularly as opposed to say, "motherland") as a
substitute is clearly meant to give the impression of a fascist or even
just nationalist ideology, whereas in truth the term encompasses an
emotional element that, like the legacy of Che Guevara, cannot be
adequately translated. Patria is culture, pride, community, family
origin, sovereignty, and the very struggle itself. Particularly when
studying the Bolivarian Revolution, one must remember the words
of Simón Bolívar: "Mi patria es América".

I am not trying to cloud the issue or absolve the Chávez regime's
propaganda of any ulterior motives; it is unquestionable that the
slogan "patria o muerte" is being manipulated by the state to create a
culture of nationalist fervor in support of the Bolivarian Government,
but what is truly important is what these ideas mean to everyday
Venezuelans, and in the case of patria, it can only be linked to that
same idea of self-valorization, a collective project for the reclaiming
of one's own identity. Another of my new comrades, a younger
artisan named Alexander, was emotional in explaining to me,
"...before, people didn't know anything about Venezuela. They
would say, 'oh, Venezuela, yes yes Amazonas and Caracas.' But
now they know that there is so much more than that here; there is
an entire population, a whole people and culture here who feel, for
once, like a part of history."

A good deal of this emotion is, of course, focused against the
empire. As Alix put it, "This is the first time that somebody here is
really just saying, 'Hey USA! Suck my dick!'"

Having said that, she is quick to step back and reflect that of course
many mistakes have been made, and massive contradictions remain
within the process itself, but at least for the moment this feels to her
like a government and a people who have stood to their feet in order
to be heard. The "Bolivarian Revolution" is seen as a
consciousness-creating machine that will eventually make itself
obsolete, a transition point towards a future where the proletariat will
have the organizational and psychological culture necessary to break
the capitalist system of production and begin "social communism".

The general (and generative) theme I most often encountered with
Alix's group was the idea of buscando cambio real, or "seeking real
change". There is a very high degree of awareness regarding the
extent to which a total change in the political system is necessary,
but like Chávez himself they recognize the process as one that
cannot happen overnight, and in the meantime everything will not be
perfect. They hold the same uncritical views as Chávez regarding
the strategic alliance with Cuba: "They have their own unique
process that they are going through," but they insist that Venezuela's
is much different.

At least within the Association's camp, there was a very pragmatic
approach to the revolution with an emphasis on consolidating the
ideological victories that have been won over capitalism in the recent
period. Argelia, another activist from Valencia, shed some light on
the revolution's long-term strategy: "You have to understand about
Chávez, he is a military man just like any other. His thinking is
totally strategic, you'll see - he has this whole thing all planned out.
For instance a lot of people criticize him for having given all that
money to [literacy programs in] Bolivia, but they don't understand
the international complexity of this issue. We know there can't be
revolution in just one country, because it won't survive. Yes it would
have been good to spend that money here in Venezuela, but we have
to think about the long-term. Things are complex, and our thinking
is realistic. We are ready for anything. Mentally, I mean."

Spending time with the artisans, I gained crucial insight into the
social base of Bolivarianism and in particular the fact that respect for
Chávez among the Venezuelan people does not extend into blind
faith, particularly not when his bureaucracy is involved. Almost
without exception, the members of the Artists' Association had
never read Marx, Kropotkin, or any other comparable writings, and
were proceeding with their own organizational and philosophical
expressions of the revolution based primarily in what their instincts
tell them would be the best way to attain freedom. For this reason,
the FSM was an incredibly important point of contact for them and
thousands of others who for the first time were able to have direct
discussions with the proponents of various radical movements and
schools of thought from around the world. In this sense we can
definitely say that the FSM accomplished much more than simply
solidifying and glorifying Chávez' grip on power.

The Association was particularly interested in the autonomist ideas
advanced by the Red & Anarchist Action Network, and every night
at the encampment became an endless dialogue on the points of
solidarity between our movements and the relevancy of
anti-authoritarian critiques and horizontal organizing to the
Venezuelan situation. After having been there for a few days, I came
up with the cheesy mantra Solo una cultura autogestionada puede
decolonizar la historia - "Only autonomous culture can decolonize
history" - as a way of showing support for the group's immediate
aim: cultural sovereignty. Alix took up these words with a passion
and before we knew it, there was a freshly painted banner bearing
the slogan hung alongside the Venezuelan and anarchist flags. This
made for one of the more interesting looking campsites in the park,
and drew a lot of attention over the course of the Forum.

The FSM was of course extensively covered by both national and
international media, and as Alix's group was a "Bolivarian" one with
not only a flashy campsite but a mandate directly from their state
legislature, she was interviewed several times each day by various
television and radio programs about the work of their association. In
many cases I was asked to participate in these interviews so as to
give an international perspective on the Forum and RAAN's
involvement, which culminated in an interview for satellite station
Telesur (Chávez' answer to CNN, roughly comparable to
Al-Jazeera in terms of potential significance) on January 26th, where
I explained that any revolution would be doomed to failure if it
proved unable or unwilling to break ties with capitalist models of
production, consumption, and the multinational entities that enable
it.

The Artisans, as much as any other revolutionary organization in the
country, recognize the primary importance of the revolucion en la
revolucion. You certainly don't need to have been reading Marx your
whole life to understand that moving beyond capitalist society means
leveling the state along with all past forms of representative politics,
and the creation of new relationships between people based on
mutual aid rather than exploitation.

Of course, that is a "stage" that the revolution has not yet reached,
and in the meantime struggles for more basic needs and long term
sustainability through consciousness-building is necessary. One
night at our campsite we were faced with the dilemma of not having
enough food to go around, as a delegation from Peru had just arrived
and our communal resources had been stretched tight. Alix had a
burst of inspiration in remembering that not only had Chávez
decreed that free showers, electricity, and water would be made
available to those attending the Forum, but that food was to be, as
well. Of course, Freddy Bernal's redshirts would have been the ones
responsible for following through on that, but since almost nobody
was aware of Chávez' wishes, they had been able to get away with
making almost no preparations towards distributing food throughout
the encampment.

With Alix in the lead, a small number of us marched to the police
post where the redshirts were headquartered and demanded that
whatever food they had be handed over in accordance with President
Chávez' orders. After surprisingly little back-and-forth, we walked
away with some 20 small bottles of water, a similar amount of boxed
juices and some oranges, and about thirty prepackaged pasta and
meatball meals, which were then distributed throughout the camp. It
was clear from the way things played out that the redshirts would
have been totally unprepared to deliver had the entire encampment
gotten together to demand food.

As I reflected in some degree of wonder at our success at getting the
meals, Alix approached me and explained, "That is the revolution in
the revolution. Whenever Chávez says something, the people have
to get the consciousness and organize for it themselves so that the
government is forced to comply with the president's strategy."

18. MY EXPERIENCES IN VALENCIA

As the FSM came to a close, I was invited by the Artisans to travel
with them back to Valencia and see what the situation was like
there. Since I was only a week into my trip and had been committed
to exploring other communities outside of Caracas, I gladly accepted
their offer and ended up spending the next month with the group.

Valencia ended up being a good place to study some of the
contradictions of the Bolivarian Revolution. In the middle-class
suburb of San Diego, pro-Chávez graffiti from the Stalinist Young
"Communist" organization (JCV) battles that of the opposition,
whose "Cubanos Fuera" (Cubans out!) tags are rapidly turned into
"Viva Cubanos, Fuera USA!" San Diego is the only
opposition-controlled town in the state, owing to a 30-party alliance
by the opposition that desperately came together to beat the
Chavistas. The resulting administration is an ultra-corrupt façade
for the benefit of mafiaoso alcalde Vicenzio Scarano, whose family
has a monopoly over the local construction, cement, and fireworks
industries. It is also probably the only city in the country where you
can find the mayor's office inside of a shopping mall. Through his
control over construction and cement, Scarano has secured the tacit
support of the local (and similarly corrupt) Chavistas by offering
them discounts for their own development projects while pushing
through a number of his own - usually massive and totally
unnecessary urban sprawl developments that in some cases require
portions of the mountains surrounding the town to be leveled, and of
course in the process make him rich.

Valencia, like elsewhere in the country, is the setting for
increasingly-militant student demonstrations that have led to
burning tire roadblocks and clashes with the police. The organized
student movement, which at this point is largely controlled by the
officialist JCV and JVR (youth wing of the MVR) have for the first
time found themselves in a position of relative power, and are using
the advantage to push their demands. A couple weeks into my stay,
the visiting mayor of Chacao was kidnapped and held hostage for
two hours by student organizations opposed to letting him speak at
the university.

In the middle of all this mess, Alix lives in a two-room house that
over fourteen years she herself built from brick, concrete, and wood
on a small piece of property left by her mother. To say that this
house looks a little out of place in San Diego is an understatement.
There, Alix and a variable number of local Artisans live, eat, and
work communally. Though most of the members of the Association
were making a living selling their works on the street, Alix had
managed to land a job or two producing commemorative pieces for
festivals organized by the state government, which provided a more
steady income for the house. Her son David, a 24-year-old
electrician and fellow revolutionary, lives and works nearby. David
had just recently learned to read through Mision Ribas, and is now
receiving a free secondary education via Mision Sucre. Both he and
his mother are ex-military.

Although it was her work for the Association that made up the
majority of Alix's organizing, she was also involved in some
autonomous personal projects that I found to be much more
interesting. Just a short bus or truck ride outside of Valencia is the
mountain community of La Cumaca, a relatively poor barrio that
began as an attempt at protecting the area's indigenous petroglyphs
from modern development, but was now actually engulfing them
under its own random expansion. The petroglyphs, chiseled into
stone centuries ago by the now extinct Arawaco tribes, (one of
Venezuela's over 50 unique indigenous cultures) make for one of the
most enduring symbols of the area's originarian heritage.

Around La Cumaca, Alix is well known by most of the community
and receives greetings from many open doors and passers by. Her
work here, done entirely on her own time and without any sort of
outside funding, revolves around organizing the community in
defense of its indigenous heritage and in the process possibly even
securing it a small claim to the area's prosperous tourism industry.
To date, Alix's (unsanctioned) projects in La Cumaca have included
two huge murals depicting Arawaco culture, a concrete statue of an
indigenous man, and another unfinished one of a woman with a
small child. These pieces of "autonomous street art" come together
to greatly improve the appearance of the town, and all were created
with the active participation of local residents. Reclaiming public
space is Alix's primary concern at the moment, and she hopes that
in pushing for the awareness and defense of indigenous culture,
independent communities and Venezuelans as a whole can then
begin to redefine their own - a prerequisite for any profound
revolutionary changes in the future.

On February 7th I was invited along with members of the
Association to Valencia's Museum of Culture, where we were to
give presentations on our experiences at the FSM. The crowd I
spoke to included not only the director of the Museum, but the
state's Minister of Culture as well. In my talk I again focused on the
necessity of breaking with capitalist relations of production; that a
"worker-run" business is still a business, and that until it is able to
break with exploitation by the transnationals, Venezuela will never
be able to advance beyond capitalism.

Alix and the other Artisans explained to me that being able to
present their experiences at the Museum and collaborate with that
institution on various projects was totally unprecedented, and prior
to the Bolivarian Revolution, ordinary street artists such as
themselves never would have had access to such a space, much less
the Minister of Culture himself. This opening up of resources for
public use has been one of the defining highlights of the Fifth
Republic, but of course like everything else is only there for those
who know how to look for it. Nevertheless it was clear that to the
Association, the "openness" of the new government was a
qualitative advance in struggle that had to be seized upon and
consolidated. This was a constant theme in my discussions with all
kinds of people in the country - that the population is willing to be
relatively patient with Chávez and the revolution's slow rate of
advance because there have already been so many changes in
everyday life as compared to the old way, that many people can't
even believe that it's even gotten this far!

That is of course not to say that Alix and the artisans were uncritical
of the Chávez bureaucracy - in fact, far from it. They have had
first-hand experience with seeing people who had been living in
small houses two years ago suddenly living in large ones and driving
SUVs now because they had put on a red shirt and gotten in with the
government. After leaving the Museum of Culture, I pointed out a
rather dilapidated-looking "Center for the Visual Arts" and asked
why that particular space was not open for use by the artisans. Alix
replied, "Because that space is still under the control of [directed by]
the opposition - you can just see how they've taken care of it... The
thing is, I could take that space tomorrow if I wanted. I could just
call up the redshirts and we could occupy that thing in a day."

I asked why they didn't just do that and she replied, "Because then
that space will not belong to the people, it will belong to the
Chavistas. The people can hold revolutionary space, but the
bureaucrats cannot. Whenever they take something like [that space]
it becomes a plaything for their propaganda - they repaint it, fix it up,
and then it just sits in the neighborhood and gets used by nobody
except themselves. What we need is to organize the community to
take back that building and run it in their own interests."

Sooner than I would have expected, I got to see what she meant. For
a while we had been walking alongside several of the "abandoned"
riverside public parks that had become home to the multitudes of
Valencia's street children who are stereotypically either drug
addicted, involved in criminal activity, or both. These parks stretched
for miles alongside some of the main roads, totally uncared for and
brown with debris after years of neglect. At the edge of one however,
we came across another park - fenced-in and with high gates - that
was obviously being tediously maintained.

Although the park was closed on that day, Alix managed to convince
the armed guards to give us a tour for my benefit, though not
without first making several emphasized references to her own
"Bolivarian" credentials. Inside the gates, the well-manicured lawns
burned bright green under synchronized sprinkler systems placed
right next to row upon row of freshly planted flowers. Compared to
the dusty reality we had just entered out of, this park seemed nothing
less than a magical oasis. Some of the highlights found within were a
community center for local children (closed at the time, of course)
and a statue of the enslaved maid who had raised Simón Bolívar
and, according to the officialist legend, instilled in him his hatred of
oppression.

The guards at the park were pretty friendly, looking smart in new
uniforms and carrying copies of Chávez' Palabras
Anti-Imperialistas in their jackets. But considering the state of the
community immediately surrounding the park, it was clear that it
was nothing more than exactly what Alix had described - a shiny
propaganda victory for the personal use of the new ruling class, the
"red bureaucracy".

I left Valencia with a wealth of experience in dealing directly with
the institutions of the Bolivarian Government and some amazing
insights into how community organizations are able to take
advantage of certain programs while at the same time being
ultimately disenfranchised by the Bolivarian process, which in many
places is only creating a new ruling class to put in place of the old. A
day before my return to Caracas, Alix received word through the
president of the Association that the state government had accepted
several of the proposals contained in their Artisan's Manifesto. The
problem was, they hadn't consulted or notified the Association in
any way - the artists had found out about this accidentally when
someone browsing the local government's website saw that their
own words had been posted there. As we pondered the meaning of
this, I asked Alix what would happen if the state really did mean to
implement these cultural initiatives over the heads of the
communities that had proposed them?

"Then I have to make my own revolution in the revolution - if not a
revolution against the Revolution."
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