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From a Texan-Venezuelan to an Ecuadoran Giuliani: Meet South America’s New Secessionists

Having failed to halt the tide of South America's Pink Tide, Washington is seeking to cultivate relationships with secessionist leaders in order to facilitate the breakup of countries which share left leaning governments.  In Bolivia, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has explicitly supported demands of the political opposition for greater regional autonomy in the eastern section of the country and has funneled millions of dollars to the right.

 

It's an inflammatory move which has incited a diplomatic firestorm throughout the region.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an important ally of the Morales government in La Paz, has said that his country will not stand for secession in Bolivia's eastern lowland states.  The stage now seems set for confrontation, as Bolivia's largest and richest state overwhelmingly backed a referendum calling for greater autonomy earlier this month. 

 

Chávez declared that his government has not meddled in the domestic affairs of other Latin American nations, but would do so if Bolivian states now seeking greater autonomy from Bolivia's central government push for total independence.  On his weekend radio and television program, the Venezuelan leader blamed "oligarchs" and "fascists" in Bolivia for the
unrest.

 

"The CIA and its lackeys" aimed at seizing control of regional governments through illegal referendums, Chávez said, "but we will defeat that plan through integration, political union and ideological strength." 

 

News of the secession movement in Bolivia has alarmed the Venezuelan authorities.  It's not difficult to see why: in western Venezuela, the right wing opposition is pushing for greater autonomy from the central government.  In response to the political crisis in Bolivia, Chávez
likened opposition efforts to win control of states near Venezuela's border with Colombia to "separatist" moves in the impoverished Andean nation to the south.  With secession rapidly turning into a worrisome political dilemma for regional governments, right wing opposition

figures are now coming to the fore.  Who are these secession leaders who wish to derail South America's Pink Tide?

 

A Texan Venezuelan

 

With the largest inland lake in Latin America, the most fertile land and 40 percent of Venezuela's oil production, the western state of Zulia and its capital Maracaibo may rightly claim to be the country's productive backbone.  Zulia has always thought of itself as the Texas of Venezuela-- a land dominated by oil, cattle and predominantly conservative politicians.  It is the country's most affluent and populous state.

 

Local residents have long taken pride in zulianidad - a state identity based loosely on Caribbean food and hospitality, a local musical genre known as gaita, and the syncretic Christian practices that dominate local religious life, chief among them worship of the "Black Christ" housed in Maracaibo's cathedral. 

 

In the twentieth century some "Zulianos" sought greater autonomy from the central government.  Historical documents in the Public Records Office of Kew Gardens in London suggest that U.S. oil companies have been embroiled in secession plots.

 

Currently, the most high profile politician pushing for greater Zulia autonomy is Manuel Rosales.  Born in 1952, Rosales began his political career in the 1970s as a local member of the city council in the town of Santa Barbara del Zulia.  A teacher, Rosales rose through the ranks of Acción Democrática, one of the two corrupt parties that dominated Venezuelan political life in the twentieth century. 

 

Rosales went on to be elected mayor of Maracaibo and formed his own party, A New Time.  An implacable foe of Hugo Chávez, Rosales went on to be elected Zulia governor in 2000.  Even as Chávez and his followers racked up one electoral victory after the next, Rosales defied
conventional political wisdom by winning reelection in 2004. 

 

"I Made a Mistake in Good Faith"

 

A politician who defines himself as a believer in freedom and social justice, Rosales nevertheless supported the U.S.-supported 2002 coup against Chávez.  Rosales was a signatory to the infamous "Carmona Decree" dissolving Venezuela's democratic institutions.  He later claimed, unconvincingly, that he had made a mistake "in good faith." 


At the time he signed the decree, Rosales argued, it appeared as if Chávez had voluntarily resigned from the presidency amidst urban confusion and gun battles erupting in the streets of Caracas.

 

In December, 2006 Rosales ran against Chávez in the presidential election.  Though he received support from the middle class opposition he went down to bitter defeat, losing by some 25 percentage points.  The campaign unfolded amidst a climate of intrigue, as Chávez accused Rosales and the U.S. of promoting Zulia's political independence and having ties with Rumbo Propio (or "Own Way"), a group which supported Zulia separatism.  Néstor Suárez, an anti-Chávez figure who opposed the government's social programs in favor of "liberal economics," led the right wing organization.

 

Though Chávez has failed to prove that Rosales had any link to secessionist plots launched by the likes of the U.S. or Rumbo Propio, the Zulia governor has cultivated close ties to the U.S. since his electoral defeat in 2006.  Last year, prior to Venezuela's vote on a constitutional referendum, Rosales went to Washington to meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon.  Rosales urged the U.S. to press Chávez to slow his constitutional overhaul plan which would have accelerated the government's progressive social agenda and abolished presidential term limits.

 

Ratcheting up the pressure yet further on Chávez, Rosales now says that he favors some degree of regional autonomy for Zulia.  The Zulia governor has said that he favors greater independence from Caracas on the groundsthat the government intends to take power away from states and municipalities, and "centralize everything." 

 

Rosales's statements come in the wake of a renewed autonomy push by New Time state legislators.  In early May, they proposed a feasibility study for potential autonomy from the federal government which they compared to the autonomy efforts in Bolivia's wealthy province of Santa Cruz. 

 

In response to the inflammatory moves by Rosales' party, Chávez supporters have lashed back.  "We legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country," said José Luis Acosta, a pro-Chávez state legislator from Zulia.  Acosta added that "We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight."

 

Guayaquil Secessionst Sentiment

 

Venezuela is not the only country facing an internal secessionist movement. In Ecuador, the right opposition to President Rafael Correa is coalescing around Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the coastal city of Guayaquil.  Affiliated to the country's Social Christian Party, Nebot ran twice for the Presidency, in 1992 and 1996.  During his second presidential bid, Nebot ran on a pro-business platform stressing privatization of public services. 

 

Born into a prominent Guayaquil family, Nebot entered politics in 1984 when President Leon Febres-Cordero appointed the ambitious young man Governor of Guayas province, the district encompassing Guayaquil.   Nebot's association with Febres-Cordero, a key ally of Ronald Reagan at the time, is not flattering.  As I explain in my new book, torture and killing by the military as well as disappearances and arbitrary arrests multiplied in Ecuador during this unfortunate period of the country's political history.

 

Later, Nebot rose to national prominence when he won a seat in Congress on the Social Christian Party slate.  While serving in Congress, Nebot became known for his colorful and tasteless outbursts.  In August, 1990 Nebot, visibly agitated, began yelling hysterically at a fellow congressman, Víctor Granda of the Socialist Party. "Come here so I can urinate on you," Nebot shouted memorably at Granda. "I can't just hit you. I have to urinate on you."  Police had to physically intervene to stop Nebot from physically assaulting his adversary.  The incident was caught on Ecuadoran national TV and has been preserved for posterity on YouTube. 

 

Ecuador's Giuliani

 

In 2000 Nebot was elected Mayor of Guayaquil where he pursued a conservative, pro-business agenda emphasizing gentrification and crime busting (he was reelected in 2004 to another four year term).  In his zealous drive to emulate tough guy Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Nebot contracted former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to help shape the city's urban regeneration strategy in 2002.  Nebot flew Bratton in from the United States, paying him an enormous sum of money for just three days of work.  Bratton proposed an overhaul of Guayaquil's anti-crime structure which later became known as "Plan Bratton."

 

The New York cop's anti-crime structure has formed part and parcel of the city's regeneration plan, which has turned Guayaquil into a kind of dystopian urban nightmare.  In the new Guayaquil, urban "undesirables" found working in gentrified areas face tough penalties: beggars and itinerant vendors may be imprisoned for up to seven days and fines can
reach as high as $500.

 

"Just Like Miami"

 

A newly constructed boardwalk called the Malecón 2000 is praised by many local residents as being "just like Miami."  However, indigenous street vendors do not fit into this ideal and

there have been ongoing efforts to remove them from cleaned up urban spaces.  In an excellent and thorough recent scholarly article, University of Glasgow geographer Kate Swanson described the contours of Nebot's social policy. 

 

The boulevard, she writes, "is monitored by heavily armed police who individually assess who can enter the gated grounds and who cannot.  Within the regenerated area, there are now at least 52 police-operated video cameras running 24 hours a day. This municipal gaze is not only concerned with crime control; rather, a key function of the cameras is to monitor the regenerated areas for the occupation of public space—particularly by informal workers."

 

The Malecón, which lies adjacent to the Guayas River, is totally manicured and sanitized.  Pedestrians may lounge in cafes and gardens, sit on benches or even eat in a local McDonald's.  "Yet," notes Swanson, "this too is guarded and monitored by heavily armed police during all opening hours.  The gates close at midnight to prevent undesirables from sneaking in and spending the night. This boardwalk was designed with tourists and Guayaquil's upper-middle classes in mind."

 

According to Swanson, there's been much criticism of the social impacts of Nebot's revitalization projects.  In fact, she notes, newspaper articles have been replete with complaints by informal workers denouncing police harassment.  In 2003 alone, the media

reported 10 cases of excessive police force in Guayaquil, many of which were captured on film.  At night, informal workers are not allowed to pass into revitalized areas of the city, and the streets are patrolled by truckloads of young, heavily armed police officers.

 

Nebot to Correa: "We Refuse to Be Guinea Pigs"

 

Having failed in his presidential ambitions, Nebot is now seeking to capitalize on secessionist sentiment in Guayas, the nation's most affluent province.  The populous, agricultural region contributes a huge share of money to the central government and is rich in natural resources.  Banana, cocoa, rice, sugar cane, cotton, tropical flowers and fruits are grown there, both for domestic consumption and export.  There is a fishing industry, focused mainly on tuna and on shrimp farming, and food, cement, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries.  What's more, Guayaquil is the nation's largest port. 

 

If Guayas were to ever secede from Ecuador, such a move would prove economically devastating for the country.  Nebot however is determined to turn up the pressure on Correa, saying that the government needs to stop its "socialist project" before the country cracks up.  Nebot and his followers argue that Correa's desire to reform the country's constitution is aimed at making the President a "Chávez-style" dictator.  

 

In January, 2008 Nebot led a march of tens of thousands through Guayaquil's streets in the name of defending the city's autonomy from Correa's plans for further centralization.  Supporters waved the city's blue and white flag and chanted "Long live Guayaquil, dammit," and "Down with Correa." 

 

"As long as you are alive and I am alive, he will never push us around," Nebot shouted to the crowd. "We will not be guinea pigs of a failed experiment."  An estimated 150,000-200,000 people attended the protest, around double the number who joined a government-sponsored march in Guayaquil a week earlier to mark the Correa government's first anniversary in power.

 

Meet Rubén Costas: Bolivia's Secessionist

 

Fair skinned and European looking, Rubén Costas hardly resembles Bolivia's indigenous president Evo Morales.  Elected Prefect of the western department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the government in La Paz. 

 

Following Costas' election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against the President's proposed Constitution which would have given the country's indigenous majority a greater say in political decision making.  When clashes erupted which resulted in the deaths of three
demonstrators and a policeman, Costas pounced by calling for a 24-hour business strike. 

 

An advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the right wing politicians who called for a referendum on Santa Cruz autonomy earlier this month.  Prior to the referendum, Costas remarked hopefully that the departments of Tarija, Pando and Benin

would join Santa Cruz in its drive for autonomy and "a second Bolivia will be created."

 

On the eve of the referendum vote, Costas assured Bolivians that there would be no violence.  At a rally, he announced "We don't want dynamite, nor clubs, nor rancor. The democratic vote is our only weapon."  Predictably however, Election Day was marked by violent clashes between government supporters opposed to the autonomy statute -- mainly indigenous migrants from Bolivia's impoverished western highlands provinces -- and members of the rightwing Santa Cruz Youth Union.  

 

As a result of the May referendum, the stage is now set for irrevocable future conflict: 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for autonomy.  As part of the referendum Costas himself will take over as Governor of the department, though Morales has called the vote illegal
and nonbinding.  Making further mischief, Santa Cruz leaders have pledged to withhold levies paid by energy companies operating in the area.

 

Santa Cruz, Guayas, and Zulia: What Do They Have in Common?

 

Like Guayas and Zulia, affluent provinces in Ecuador and Venezuela respectively, Santa Cruz is the richest department in Bolivia.  Bolivia's eastern departments account for most of the country's natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product.  Like Chávez, who
is worried that Zulia secession would lead to a cutoff of oil revenue, Morales can ill afford secession in the east: Bolivia is South America's poorest country and desperately needs proceeds from the gas industry. 

 

There's a racial and political dimension to these conflicts too.  In Ecuador, it is Nebot and the predominantly white and mestizo coastal elite which seek to secede from the Indian highlands.  In the small Andean nation, it's the Indians who are pushing radical social change, whereas whites and mestizos on the coast fear the rise of socialism. 

 

In Bolivia, there's a similar dynamic at work: Morales's indigenous supporters in the highlands constitute the radical political vanguard which are increasingly at odds with whites and mestizos in the lowlands.  In Santa Cruz, the elite fears Morales' plans to promote land reform and to capture greater energy revenue for the central state.

 

The similarities between these secessionist movements are not lost on the region's leaders.  Javier Zárata, the Bolivian Ambassador to Ecuador, recently remarked that"what is occurring in Bolivia is not an isolated action." "I know there have been coordination meetings last year and the year before among representatives from Santa Cruz and representatives of Guayaquil, and other states of other countries," the diplomat added.

 

Speaking on his weekly radio show, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said that "oligarchical and separatist" Bolivians were trying to destabilize the Morales government.  Correa remarked that regional governments would not stand for secessionist movements in Santa Cruz, Zulia and Guayas.  Elites in all three countries, Correa declared, sought to roll back progressive social change "so as to continue with imperialistic and neo-liberal policies."

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Chávez Against Rosales: Venezuela Prepares to Vote

With the Venezuelan presidential campaign shifting into high gear in advance of tomorrow’s election, Caracas looks as polarized as ever. Recent demonstrations have underscored the great political rift dividing Chavez followers from the opposition.

Last week, supporters of Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate, thronged streets and major highways. The very next day, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, dressed in their trademark red clothing, turned out onto the streets in support of the president. Some marched through Altamira, a wealthy district in the eastern section of the city which is sympathetic to Rosales.

While in Caracas I was struck by the changed political atmosphere which prevailed in the city. Indeed, much had changed since I lived in the city in 2000-2001. I had gone to Venezuela then to pursue research on my doctoral dissertation, and spent much of my time between San Bernardino, a hillside neighborhood where I had rented a room, and downtown, where I used to go to do archival work.

At that time, Chavez was still consolidating his political power and had not yet initiated controversial social and economic programs. As I recount in my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press), many folk in San Bernardino were beginning to grow suspicious of Chavez. The neighborhood had once been affluent; Nelson Rockefeller had even built a famous hotel in the area, the Hotel Avila.

In more recent years, however, poor residents had taken over a hillside next to my landlord’s condo. I was warned that the people were Colombian and should be avoided at all cost as they were violent. After I finished my day’s work at the archive downtown, I would head to the Institute of Advanced Business Studies (known by its Spanish acronym, IESA). The institute had generously agreed to provide me with a work visa in Venezuela so I could pursue my research.

The school was located a couple blocks from my apartment building, and I frequently made use of IESA’s computer room. The school, with a quiet and tranquil atmosphere cordoned off by gates, was a refuge from polluted and congested downtown. The students, who in general looked whiter than many folks in the city center, used to demonize Chavez as a dangerous radical.

I left Venezuela in the summer of 2001, and judging from my discussions with many members of the middle class, social antagonism was starting to grow. However, Caracas still hadn’t achieved the level of popular mobilization that we’ve seen in recent years. During and after the coup of 2002, however, that would change as the city became more and more polarized.

One physical symbol of the growing political radicalization within Caracas is the proliferation of street murals. Over the course of about three weeks this summer, I had the opportunity to see a lot of the new public art. At one point, while taking a grimy bus from the mountains down into downtown, I saw signs on the highway reading "Let us unite and we will be invulnerable."

The quote was attributed to Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator and independence hero against Spain whose profile appeared on the mural. Throughout the city, murals depicting patriot leaders such as Antonio Jose de Sucre are commonplace. I saw one mural of the independence fighter Felix Ribas outside of a government sponsored cooperative. Appearing next to Ribas was a portrait of Chavez, wearing his characteristic red beret.

Later, I went to Bolivar’s Native House (Casa Natal de Bolivar) in downtown. The staff was in the midst of restoration of the colonial building, which had a red brick tile roof. For Chavez, Bolivar, who liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule, carries symbolic importance. The president has renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (the government had to redo all the country’s stationery at great expense), and addresses his people on TV while sitting underneath an oil portrait of the Great Liberator.

According to Mercedes Garcia, the director of Bolivar’s Native House, Chavez had been able to awaken a historical interest amongst the masses. As a result of the president’s speeches, Garcia told me, more people were heading to Venezuelan historic sites and had undergone a psychological shift. In the schools, children were now leaning more about Bolivar than ever before. In her museum Garcia noted an increase in the amount of visitors, which now amounted to 3,500 per week. Garcia added that many soldiers were now coming to Bolivar’s House and that there was greater historical curiosity within the armed forces.

In 2000-2001, I was always careful not to linger in downtown Caracas after hours. In San Bernardino, my landlord advised me not to go out after 7 PM. Apparently my neighbors had similar ideas: in the evening, the streets around IESA were deserted. At night I would like awake in bed, the silence punctuated only by the occasional sound of distant gunshots.

During my recent trip, I cannot say that I sensed much of a drastic improvement in Caracas. In downtown I found it difficult to breathe due to the pollution. My eyes and throat frequently felt sore from the smog. Meanwhile, downtown seemed as anarchic and unsafe as ever. Indeed, I found it difficult to walk on the street as it was taken over by the buoneros (informal street vendors). The buoneros sell everything from CDs to arepas, a kind of Venezuelan corn pancake. Compared to five years earlier, there were more homeless people sleeping in the streets around Bellas Artes, a grimy area falling to pieces.

In light of their brutal everyday struggle, it is not surprising that many residents here have become politicized and routinely turn out for Chavez’s mass street rallies. To some, Chavez’s hard core supporters are a menace. Speaking to one well-to-do businessman in Altamira, a wealthy Caracas neighborhood, I inquired about activists who attended Chavez’s mass rallies. "They are fanatics," he replied.

To get more perspective about growing social polarization, I traveled to the neighborhood of Chacaito and the offices of the Venezuelan opposition party, Primero Justicia. There, I met with Gerardo Blyde, General Secretary of the party. Blyde was clean cut, had slicked back hair and wore a blazer.

Blyde admitted that in Caracas, there was a real discrimination in terms of services. The poor had little access to basic infrastructure, he commented.

"In New York," he said, "the water you get in Queens or Brooklyn is as clean as the water you receive on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. That kind of equality in services is not evident in Caracas. Unfortunately, Caracas grew in an amorphous manner which was disordered, adequate planning was not put into services, and this has given rise to chaos."

To get a sense of how the other half lived, I went to Altamira. On one day when I was there, I noticed workmen tending some flowers planted nearby. Though still polluted, the neighborhood had a fountain in the main square and tree lined streets. In the cafes, women flaunted jewelry, surprising to me in light of growing kidnapping of wealthy residents in the capital.

At a nearby store, I spoke with the same businessman who belittled anti-Chavez supporters. During the oil strike of 2002-3 [designed to shut down the oil industry and bring down the Chavez government], he remarked, well dressed and educated folk tried to keep his store from opening and surrounded the premises. Finally, he had called the police. Personally, he had just as much disdain for the elitist anti-Chavistas in Altamira as the hard core Chavistas.

Blyde admitted that in 2002 many of the elite were paranoid about the Chavistas coming into their homes. Since then, however, he said that the Caracas elite, like much of the rest of the city, was not fearful of political violence as much as everyday street crime.

"Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world," he said. "Because of the lack of employment and lack of income, the city is very violent."

Rafael Uzcategui, media coordinator at the human rights organization Provea, agreed with Blyde that much of the paranoia had decreased since 2002. However, he also stated that the political divide had widened once again in advance of the election.

Five years earlier I’d met Rafael in Caracas. At that time he had been a student at the Central University and frequently wrote for the anarchist newspaper El Libertario. Rafael was still involved with the paper, but he confided to me that he did not feel comfortable selling El Libertario on the campus of the Central University of Caracas.

There, he said, there were pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez groups. His circle was in the minority, and members of El Libertario felt pressured by both sides. Even an elder member of the group was insulted when he attempted to distribute materials. Rafael said that he was no longer on speaking terms with many former friends owing to political differences.

"There are pro-Chavez zones of city and anti-Chavez areas," Rafael said. "We have always been interested in putting on cultural events and showing movies," he added. "When we put on activities in opposition areas, we are accused of being pro- Chavez." But, he continued, "In a pro-Chavez barrio, they said we were right wing imperialists."

During the April, 2002 coup, he said, members of El Libertario had received a lot of death threats, hateful e-mail, and harassing telephone calls. The group’s Web site had been hacked and destroyed during a meeting of the World Social Forum, and they had had to launch a new page through a more secure server.

"We have had to put up with a low intensity civil war in this city," Rafael commented.

Back in 2002, Rafael said, people would judge you based on the newspaper you read. If you bought El Nacional, you were automatically perceived as anti-Chavez. If you were seen reading Ultimas Noticias, you were assumed to be pro-Chavez.

"In 2002," Rafael added, "If you went out with red on you could feel the pressure of people looking at you in the metro."

For me personally, the issue of color as a political marker is one of the most interesting facets of Caracas political life. In recent years, red has become the official color of the Chavistas. In Catia, a poor Caracas barrio, I visited a cooperative where women were busily sewing red T-shirts for the state-run oil company, PdVSA. On another occasion, I witnessed pro-Chavez followers painting over an opposition mural in front of my Caracas hotel. They were all wearing red.

On a recent trip to Coral Gables, Florida, I had the opportunity to discuss these questions with Dr. Steve Stein, an old mentor of mine who is currently the director of the Latin American Studies Program at University of Miami.

"The Sandinistas had red and black and they really used those colors a lot," Stein said. "In the nineteenth century political parties had colors in Argentina; the liberal and conservatives had light blue and red. Under Rosas’s authoritarian regime in Argentina you had to wear something red. So, color as a means of political identification has been a longtime fixture of Latin American politics." [for those interested in reading the rest of this interview, see the upcoming December edition of the Brooklyn Rail which will shortly be available online].

The name of the game in Caracas has been winning the allegiance of the middle class. According to Blyde, the vast majority of the middle class voted for Chavez in 1998.
"But," he said, "that middle class is accustomed to getting the kinds of services that are common in today’s world. They’re not rich, they’re not multimillionaires from Manhattan, they’re who have studied, who have worked hard to get their car, their apartment, their house. These people felt threatened by speeches made by Chavez: he was going against what they had built up over the past twenty or thirty years."

"Thirty years ago," Blyde continued, "there was no middle class. There were some rich people and a few families. The rest were poor, like the typical division in Latin America. They felt threatened by Chavez’s rhetoric stressing ‘Socialism for the Twenty First Century.’ They thought they were going to have their standard of living taken away. Chavez then lost the middle class."

Once, while eating in a Tasca (Spanish style restaurant) near to my hotel, I fell into discussion with a middle aged couple. The woman, who was of Spanish descent, said that if Chavez won again she would leave the country. Her husband owned a print making shop, which had done well economically. But, the two of them were fearful of Chavez’s intentions and believed that the Venezuelan president might impose communism.

Speaking to the amiable night watchman in my hotel, I asked him about growing political tensions in Caracas. He said that he was a Chavista, as was his family, but that he was not a fanatic. He disliked Chavez’s program, Alo, Presidente!, but occasionally watched the other state channel, Vive TV.

As a whole, he said, the middle class was divided. Some were with Chavez, others were against, and some comprised the so-called "ni, ni" bloc (neither with the opposition nor with the Chavistas). He personally believed that the middle class had not become very anti-U.S. as a result of Chavez´s speeches.

"People are just as consumerist as before," he said, "perhaps more as the economy is now doing better." Some middle class, he said, had sold their property after the coup and moved abroad. But then, he said, they found that life wasn´t so easy and had to return to Venezuela.

Currently local and state authorities as well as government ministries fund public murals in Caracas. My favorite was a huge piece near the Bellas Artes metro station not far from San Bernardino. The piece is comprised of several panels, each of which is perhaps one storey tall. The mural depicts Venezuelan history from the colonial period to the present. In the first panel, the mural shows prosperous owners of great cocoa plantations and black slaves rising in revolt. Another panel depicts Venezuela’s experience with oil in the twentieth century. Sitting on top of a big barrel of oil was none other than Juan Vicente Gomez, a dictator who ruled the country from 1908 to 1935. Gomez, who was installed in a U.S.-supported coup d’etat, developed a strategic alliance with American oil companies. Simultaneously, Gomez presided over the country through a repressive spy and police network. In the mural, next to Gomez, we see a prisoner holding on to the iron bars of a jail cell. The Gomez era was notorious for its horrible prisons, such as the terrible dungeon known as La Rotunda.

In supporting such public art, the Chavez authorities are clearly trying to compete with materialistic, U.S.-style billboards and advertising all over the city. In downtown Caracas, the desk clerk at my hotel remarked that in his view, the murals had not made much of an impact on public consciousness. I put some of these questions to Steve Stein.

"If we look back on the Mexican Revolution, which was probably the beginnings of this kind of political mural art," Stein said, "there was not a lot of subtlety in the great Diego Rivera or Orozco murals either. Did they actually indoctrinate people towards a certain ideology? And the answer is probably not. My sense is that after a while, you don’t even see them anymore."

As for Caracas, Stein added, we need to pose crucial questions about the overall impact of the murals. "Is the murals effect greater than the products of an international, globalized consumer society. I don’t know if I have the answer to that question."

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An End to Interventionism in Venezuela

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