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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."