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White Racism and the Aymara in Bolivia

Recently, I caught up with Magdalena Cajias, a historian at the Upper University of San Andres, Bolivia, and producer of the documentary film, Achacachi, the Aymara Insurgency. During their interview, Cajias discussed endemic racism in Bolivian society, Aymara cultural nationalism, and the relationship between social movements and the government of Evo Morales. –editors.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Could you tell me a bit about your professional background?

Magdalena Cajias: I´m a historian and I also produced a documentary in 2002 about the indigenous movement. I spent two years gathering first hand testimonials from campesinos hailing from the altiplano [highlands] who were linked to the indigenous leader Felipe Quispe. In 2000, Quispe was my student in the history department. When he was detained following a blockade, we sent a letter of support from our department. Quispe told us he was interested in recovering first hand testimonials from those who participated in the blockade. We started to conduct visits and conduct interviews. Through Quispe, who gave us permission, we were able to sit in on key meetings where participants were discussing the course of the campesino and indigenous movement. Our documentary was the result of this work.

NK: How has racism worked historically in Bolivia?

MC: The Indians have had two approaches towards the Bolivian state and white or mestizo society. On the one hand, they have pursued integration. They have linked up with populist parties, principally the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (known in Spanish under the acronym MNR). But if you go back even to the colonial period, you can find many instances in which the Indians pursued negotiation and integration with white and mestizo society. Aymaras on the other hand have cultivated their own sense of identity and self determination.

NK: So, how did it work exactly, were certain professions off limits?

MC: At certain times, we might speak of a white minority in Bolivia, although no one is really white here. As in the U.S. with the black codes, the municipal government of La Paz had certain established forms of discrimination in the beginning of the twentieth century. On buses and trams, you had to sit in the back. There was explicit and implicit discrimination. The possibility that Indians would ever attain important government positions was practically nil.

NK: Have race relations improved?

MC: No. I think actually what has happened is that the Indians´ discourse, which has tended on the radical side, i.e. that all whites have oppressed us, etc., has produced a reaction amongst the middle class which reside in the south of La Paz. As a result, the middle class has become more racist. There’s a lot of fear, now that there’s an indigenous president. The middle class has been excluded from the positions it occupied before, and has lost a bit of its social position.

NK: How is racism manifested?

MC: During moments of political conflict, in October 2003 and later when Evo Morales assumed the presidency, rumors circulated that the Indians were going to bust into the homes of white people. I could show you e-mails that have circulated in moments of crisis. For example, when the government was debating a new land law, thousands of Indians came to San Francisco Square. E-mails declared that the Indians were staging an invasion. This is the kind of rhetoric that harks back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

NK: So, notwithstanding all of the momentous recent political changes, La Paz continues to be a racist city?

MC: Racism exists, but now there are more ways to confront it. The Indians feel they have more clout, because they’re in the government now. Sometimes however the Indians exaggerate, they act out inverse racism. It’s like women who refuse to accept men, who are labeled as the oppressors, etc. We’ve had very heated rhetoric coming from the Minister of External Relations [David Choquehanca, an Aymara Indian], who said he could not go to the south of La Paz "because they all hate me there." So, on both sides we get this kind of confrontational discourse. In my own personal case, my father was very, very dark and my mother was rather white. If people don’t know me, they say, "She´s a white professor" in a disparaging manner.

NK: To what extent does cultural nationalism have to do with hatred towards whites?

MC: There is a certain degree of resentment. We’re not living in South Africa, but who’s had access to education? The sons of whites and mestizos. On the other hand, Aymara nationalism is more confrontational in its rhetoric than in actual practice.

NK: Now that cultural nationalism is on the rise, will we see more Indians in the media and will Quechua and Aymara become official languages?

MC: Of course. In state entities, studying Aymara is mandatory. In the Ministry of External Relations people are required to speak Aymara. Whites have made fun of this. They say that officials should instead know how to speak German, French, and English. In the Constituent Assembly, certainly indigenous languages will become official. One of the principal aims of the Educational Reform has been to recognize not only Aymara and Quechua but also the languages of eastern Bolivia and Guarani.

NK: But, watching TV here I don’t see any Indian presenters…?

MC: On Channel 7, which is state-owned, Aymara ought to be spoken. I’ve seen some Aymara programming here and there, but not very much. In general though, TV is much less popular amongst the Indians than radio.

NK: And you hear more indigenous languages on radio?

MC: Yes, a lot of Aymara.

NK: There’s talk of creating an ethnically pluralistic nation, but I wonder whether the Aymaras and Quechuas get along?

MC: Traditionally they’ve had their rivalries but that was a long time ago because of course the Quechuas conquered the Aymara. To this day there are differences between the two peoples. Quechuas have always pursued closer societal integration and have interbred with outsiders to a greater extent. The rivalry between Quechuas and Aymaras was manifest in the relationship between Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales when they were both powerful. Of course, now Quispe doesn’t have much of a following and Evo has capitalized on indigenous sentiment which is totally in his favor. The two differed, not only in terms of their ideological vision but also in ethnic terms. Evo has Aymara roots but identified as Quechua because he was from the coca zone.

NK: Do these rivalries form a barrier for nation building?

MC: It might. In an effort to construct a state with a common identity, we may wind up with a very fractured society. Even more than the Quechua-Aymara split, there are a lot of divisions in Aymara society itself amongst different communities. On the other hand, in critical moments such as 2003 in the city of El Alto, there was a certain unity amongst diverse social sectors such as miners, rural and urban settlers. Quechuas and Aymaras meanwhile worked to help each other out.

NK: What was your impression of Quispe when you filmed the documentary?

MC: Quispe was intelligent and skilled at cultivating a certain discourse at a precise moment. His ideology was based on recuperating ethnic and cultural elements within the larger social struggle. Quispe´s struggle wasn´t always so abstract: he and his followers would initiate a blockade so as not to pay for water service, or to reclaim lands. On the other hand, we noticed that no one could go to meetings without putting on a poncho.

NK: How do nationalist Indians perceive Morales?

MC: I think Morales didn’t use to cultivate an ethnic discourse, he was someone who defended coca, who had a more worker oriented, anti-imperialist rhetoric. But then he incorporated Quispe’s radicalism, i.e., "I am an Indian, that is why they mistreat me," etc.

NK: Does the idea of forming a separate Aymara nation enjoy much support?

MC: No. That´s why Quispe no longer has much of a following. Aymara nationalism is nothing like Serb nationalism. When white oppression is too much to bear, the Aymaras react in a very radical manner. But the Aymaras are also capable of negotiating and allying with others. They’re not going to push for separation from the Bolivian nation state, but they’re going to demand a certain amount of autonomy. For example, they want the right to elect their own indigenous municipal authorities.

NK: Does Evo Morales ever speak Quechua?

MC: In the coca zone, he speaks Spanish and Quechua. He puts on a poncho, which he never used to do. He’s been in politics for twenty years, and only during the last five has he put on a poncho.

NK: Could we see the emergence of the most radical social movements here in Bolivia?

MC: It’s possible. In Bolivia the state has never been able to function without social pressure from below. That’s to say, civil society is permanently organized and constantly exercises pressure on the government. At times, this pressure can become quite radical. But radical in what sense? People may organize a blockade or strike. But it’s not radical in the sense of Central America where you wound up with guerrilla movements. In Bolivia, armed movements have never achieved any kind of importance. The 1952 Revolution was much less bloody than the Cuban and Mexican Revolutions and it was also shorter. It was three days of struggle in the streets and boom!, the oligarchy fell. There’s no culture of long term violence here in Bolivia. On the other hand we do have a tradition of participatory democracy which comes out of the ayllu [a pre-Inca form of political organization based on extended family groups] and labor movement, which de-emphasizes delegation of power towards leaders.

NK: When you speak with the Indians nowadays, do you notice any psychological shift?

MC: Yes. I have noticed a change in my students in the history department, who have campesino origins. Ten years ago, it was difficult to get them to even say their last name. Finally they would say their name, but very slowly. Now it’s different. People say, "I am from such and such a town in the altiplano, and I am an Indian!"

Magdalena Cajias is a historian at the Upper University of San Andres, Bolivia, and producer of the documentary film, "Achacachi, The Aymara Insurgency."

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Chile: A Country Geographically Located in South America ‘By Accident’

Recently, I caught up with Manuel Cabieses, the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper. During the one hour interview, Cabieses discussed his own background and opposition to the Pinochet government, Chile’s free trade agreement with the U.S., the state of social movements in Chile, Hugo Chavez, China’s rising profile in South America, and the current position of left media in Chile.

NK: Could you tell me a bit about your personal background?

MC: I originally worked in an oil company as a young man. We created a union there, and I was responsible for the labor newspaper. Through the paper I got involved in journalism; I never studied journalism in a formal setting.

NK: How did you get involved in politics?

MC: I first got interested in a party which no longer exists in Chile, which was called Falange Nacional. This was the precursor to the Christian Democratic Party. I got interested in it because my mother was Catholic and friendly with various leaders within the party. I was never a militant however. Then, when I started working I got interested in the Communist Party. I wasn’t such a militant there either, but I got interested in Marxist books. Later, for work related reasons I emigrated to Venezuela, this was during the 1960s. In Venezuela I had contact with the Communist Party of Venezuela which at that time had initiated armed struggle. I later returned to Chile and became more active in the Communist Party. I took up work as a journalist at the Communist Party paper for example. Later I broke with the Communist Party and I became a militant within the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (known by its Spanish acronym MIR). This was up to and even after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. Later I was imprisoned and expelled from the country. Subsequently I returned in secret to Chile as a MIR militant.

NK: Could you explain a bit about prison and exile?

MC: (long pause). I was detained 2 days after the coup, in the street.

NK: Nearby to your offices here?

MC: Yes, here in downtown. I was in a car. We were all obliged to get out of the vehicle, and someone in the street recognized me. The dictatorship had issued advisories, warning that certain people should hand themselves over, including me. I was imprisoned a little more than 2 years, in different prisons all over the country. Finally I was expelled along with my family. We went to Cuba. I was there for around 4 years and later I returned secretly with my woman, that Senora outside who you saw in my office. We spent almost ten years living in secret here in Chile, working with the MIR. That’s about it in summary.

NK: How strong are social movements here and to what extent can they push the government to the left?

MC: They’re very weak and atomized. The dictatorship, through repression and imposition of its economic model, were able to fracture social movements, and almost succeeded in liquidating any kind of left political movement. The labor unions today are far fewer in number than in the 1970s. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the emergence of a potent social movement here like in other countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador for example.

NK: What about students?

MC: The student movement last year was very strong in the sense that there hadn’t been a movement like that for many years. But intrinsically it wasn’t very strong in terms of organization and wasn’t able to mobilize on a national level. This year the student movement hasn’t advanced at all.

NK: What about the Indians?

MC: After the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Mapuche Indians have been politically active on a sporadic basis. But, as with other sectors of society, it’s a very atomized movement and there is no national Mapuche organization. The most radicalized Mapuches have been very beaten back and repressed.

NK: Could there be more social conflict here if poverty increases?

MC: Chilean economic development has reached a threshold. The economy was growing at a rate of 6-7%, but last year it went down to 4%. This year it’s hardly expected that it will significantly increase beyond this rate. The dynamism of the neo liberal, export model, seems to have reached a plateau because Chile lacks necessary infrastructure. Fundamentally, the export model is based on mining, especially copper, the rest is fruit and wood. But there’s no capacity to promote greater development and we lack diversified technology to compete. As a result the economy grows slowly, and a high number of people, some 500,000 individuals, are unemployed on a permanent basis.

NK: Has poverty been reduced?

MC: There has been a reduction in poverty in terms of percentages, but what has advanced more rapidly is extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority. Investors have reaped fabulous profits in the last few years, but meanwhile salaries and pensions have suffered. In this manner, the contradictions between extreme poverty and wealth have been sharpened. At the same time, the political parties have been delegitimized. The same political conditions are being generated here that we observed before the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or Ecuador on a permanent basis, or Bolivia. These conditions will generate a difficult political and social milieu in future.

NK: How does society view Chile’s free trade agreement with the United States?

MC: There are labor sectors who look favorably upon the treaty. They believe what the media has told them, that the prosperity, this dynamic export economy, will filter down from the top towards the bottom. There are sectors of society which are not numerically insignificant, which have benefited in some way from the export model. For example, in terms of credit. Credit cards didn’t exist here before. But today a great many Chileans, even those earning low salaries, have them. We have also seen massification of cell phones. In Chile there are 14 million cell phones, and the population is some 16 million people. Support for the export model is clearly demonstrated in the electoral arena. Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, between the electoral vote for the Concertacion and the right, more than 90% of Chileans have chosen to support this model. That’s because a political and social alternative hasn’t yet arisen.

NK: What have been the advantages of the model?

MC: There’s been a great modernization, growth in telecommunications, roads, airports, ports, and all sectors linked to export.

NK: Yes, the airport is quite impressive!

MC: If you go out into the countryside, a half hour out of Santiago, you’ll find agro export farms. There has been prosperity in that sense. Each year the companies register an increase on the stock market.

NK: Is there any chance Chile would back out of the free trade agreement with the U.S.?

MC: No, and in fact every day Chile signs a new trade agreement with other countries.

NK: How do you see China’s rising presence economically speaking?

MC: China is becoming more important. One sign of this is the anticipated copper profits from sales to China, amounting to $ 500-600 million dollars. China pays in advance.

NK: What do social movements have to say about China’s rising profile?

MC: Social movements are passive towards these types of issues. There are some labor leaders who are sympathetic towards China because they think it will have a respectful attitude towards Chilean interests. I think they are mistaken. The Chinese are doing business at the same velocity and lack of scruples as the United States.

NK: How strong is left wing journalism here in Chile?

MC: In television there’s nothing, there’s no station that identifies as leftist. There’s a radio station which belongs to the Communist Party, and there’s a few progressive radio stations. In the press there’s only two bi monthlies, El Siglo, of the Communist Party, and Punto Final, both have low circulation. We have no publicity and experience distribution problems. On the internet there’s more diversity but in Chile most people don’t have access as this is just beginning here.

NK: In Venezuela Chavez has created a lot of state television media and there’s been an information battle going on. Is that possible here?

MC: (long pause). You say, here?

NK: Yes (laughs). Are you surprised by my question?

MC: In Venezuela, you have that situation because there’s a government that confronts the private media. Here, the media is completely identified with the government. The government is the Concertacion, but the party shares power with the right. The media meanwhile is totally on the right.

NK: How strong is CNN and U.S. media here in Chile?

MC: Very strong, but amongst the middle and upper middle classes.

NK: Is Telesur (a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela) beamed here, and could it compete?

MC: There are some regions of the country, for example in the center, where you can receive Telesur and even Cuban TV. Otherwise however, only people who have access to Direct TV can watch Telesur. You need a long range antenna.

NK: Have you ever had any contact with the U.S. Embassy here while working for Punto Final?

MC: I have never had any contact with them, expect for one time when I applied for a visa to visit Puerto Rico. I was turned down. But, the embassy subscribes to Punto Final (laughs).

NK: It seems to me that Chile’s relationship with the U.S. is a bit ambiguous?

MC: I don’t think Chile has criticized the U.S. in a very direct way as some other Latin American governments have done in the past. Chile is located here by a geographical accident, in the Southern Cone of Latin America. With the exception of the Iraq War, Chilean foreign policy is completely identified with U.S. and European interests.

NK: You interviewed Chavez, what was your impression and what do you think will happen as far as Chilean Venezuelan relations?

MC: In 1994 I met Chavez in Chile. He was on a tour of Latin America and in Chile no one wanted to receive him. No leftist party wanted to associate itself with him because he had this image of being a military coup plotter. But we at Punto Final interviewed him. We went to his hotel and did a two page spread. These days I have a very high opinion of Chavez. I think he’s matured as far as his political ideas, he’s made them more solid, firmer. Sometimes to my mind he uses strident rhetoric when characterizing certain foreign leaders and doesn’t think before he acts. As far as Chilean Venezuelan relations, I don’t expect much. I think optimally what one might hope is that Chile may retain a respectful attitude towards Venezuela. But, I don’t think it will be friendly. Perhaps friendly between high profile politicians like Bachelet and Chavez, but this won’t extend to deep relations between the two governments.

Manuel Cabieses is the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper.

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Hugo Chávez’s Holy War

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took his oath of office for a second term, he swore it in the name of Jesus Christ, who he called "the greatest socialist of history."  It's hardly an accident that Chavez would hark on Christianity in addressing his people.  For years, Venezuela has been a religious battleground, with Chavez pursuing a combative relationship with the Catholic Church. 


In Venezuela, Catholics have a potent political voice and make up about 70% of the country's population.  Ever since taking office in 1999, Chavez has repeatedly clashed with the clergy.  The President frequently chastised Venezuelan bishops, accusing them of complicity with corrupt administrations that preceded his rule.


To a certain extent, a clash was inevitable.  Unlike some other Latin American countries which were characterized by so-called liberation theology, the Venezuelan Church has never had a leftist tendency.  According to observers, as few as one in 10 priests identify with the left and out of more than 50 bishops only a handful are sympathetic to Chavez.


The Venezuelan Church: A Bastion of Conservatism


Despite the conservative nature of the Church, relations between the clergy and the Chavez government got off to a reasonably good start.  After he was first elected in 1998, Chavez proclaimed his devotion to the Church and Catholic social doctrine.  Venezuelan bishops in turn supported the social programs that Chavez had outlined during his presidential campaign.  Bishops welcomed Chavez's calls to end corruption, to foster a more equitable distribution of wealth, transparent voting, and an end to the ruling class' special privileges. 


Thing went awry, however, in July, 1999 when Chavez personally met with Monsignor Baltazar Porras at the headquarters of the Episcopal Conference.  Porras, the Archbishop of the Andean city of Merida and chairman of the Episcopal Conference, met with Chavez for two hours. Emerging from the meeting, Porras declared that the Venezuelan government had opted to cut its traditional subsidies to the Church by up to 80%.  The new rules, Porras said, would oblige clerical authorities to adjust to "the new realities of the country, and to figure out how to search for self financing."  Porras became a vocal critic of the regime; in Caracas he received the backing of the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy.


Another point of friction was Chavez's calls for a new Constitution.  Church leaders feared that Chavez's secret agenda in calling for the new constitution was the imposition of a Cuban-style communist regime.  Porras declared that Chavez was fomenting "fear and hate" and dividing Venezuelans in his campaign to draft a constitution.


Traveling to Merida


Recently I was in Caracas to give a talk and decided to take a night bus to Merida, a city located about seven hundred kilometers south-west of the capital.  I was eager to learn more about the Church in Venezuela, and how its relations had deteriorated so dramatically with Chavez.


I drifted off to sleep in the bus.  Climbing up and down through the mountains, the landscape was dotted with cacti.  By the next day, exhausted from the trip, I made my way to a posada or inn near the Central Square.  Five years earlier, I'd stayed in the same place while pursuing research for my dissertation on the foreign oil industry in Venezuela. 


Merida is a favored tourist destination and feels like a Venezuelan version of Switzerland with hotels, cyber cafes and vegetarian restaurants appealing to foreigners.  In the main square of the city, Venezuelan hippies in their twenties play guitar and sell artisan work.  Despite its traditional religious outlook, Merida also has a university which has had a long tradition of leftist politics.


A few days after recuperating from my long trip, I headed to the Cathedral in Merida's central square.  There, I spoke with Monsignor Alfredo Torres, General Vicar of the local Archdiocese.  A long time fixture of the local church establishment, Torres went into the seminary when he was fifteen years old. 


When I asked Torres how relations had deteriorated so badly between Chavez and Porras, the local clergyman explained, "The militarist, socialistic bent of the government was always a critical point for the Archbishop."


Church-Military Relations Break Down


By 2000, the role of the military had certainly become a controversial political issue.  During his first year in power, Chavez, himself a former paratrooper, faced a very unenviable political environment.  Congress and the Supreme Court were in the hands of the opposition, as were the majority of mayoral districts and governorships.  Meanwhile, oil stood at only $7 a barrel. 

In desperation, Chavez called on the armed forces to carry out ambitious public works projects---the so-called Plan Bolivar 2000.  The plan proved reportedly divisive within the military, with some soldiers feeling uncomfortable in their new social role. 


The Church missed no opportunity to criticize Chavez's military policy.  Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco remarked publicly that "something is making the armed forces nervous."  Velasco recommended that the armed forces should meet to decide whether soldiers should have the right to express themselves openly. 


Furthermore, Velasco remarked sarcastically, the Minister of Defense, Ismael Hurtado Soucre, always tried to smooth over problems and make believe that nothing was wrong within the military ranks.  That elicited a sarcastic rejoinder in turn from Hurtado, who remarked that the Church certainly had its own share of problems.


Chavez vs. Castillo Lara


Chavez did not assuage the Church's fears when he declared famously that several bishops and the Vatican's former representative in Venezuela, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, had allied with the country's "rancid oligarchy."


"It would appear," said Chavez, "that a very small group of bishops has something personal against the President."


Even more inflammatory still, Chavez suggested that priests such as Castillo ought to subject themselves to an exorcism because "the devil has snuck into their clerical robes."  


In a personal riposte, Chavez sought to link Castillo with earlier corrupt administrations.  "Where were you when the bankers robbed more than $7,000,000,000 under the government of Rafael Caldera, your personal friend, during the financial crisis of 1994?  Did you say anything when the police massacred the people on the 27th of February [during the Caracazo, massive urban riots in Caracas in 1989]?"


Incensed, Castillo compared Chavez to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.


Meanwhile, the Church grew increasingly more concerned about the Constitution, which failed to guarantee the protection of life beginning at conception.


War of Words Escalates: Vargas Tragedy


In the midst of the escalating battle over the Constitution, disaster struck when rains hit the state of Vargas, on the coast near Caracas.  I had the occasion to visit the area over this past summer, and what one is immediately struck by is the precarious housing built on steep hillsides.  When the rains hit, they created massive landslides that swept away everything.  A catastrophe of epic proportions, the Vargas rains led to the deaths of between 10 and 20,000 people.


In Vargas, I spoke with people who were still, seven years later, waiting to be evacuated.  Living in dilapidated housing and mired in poverty, their plight was certainly depressing.  Nevertheless, it should be said that the government carried out a Herculean job, evacuating 190,000 people.  I visited one recently built housing complex, Ciudad Miranda, which housed many of the refugees.


At a moment of crisis, the Church insinuated itself into the Vargas crisis by making critical public statements.  In a reference to Chavez, Archbishop Velasco remarked that the Vargas tragedy was the "wrath of God," because "the sin of pride is serious and nature itself reminds us that we don't have all the power or abilities."


Chavez's Papal Gambit


As prominent Church figures such as Castillo and Velasco became more combative, Chavez sought to override local opposition by traveling personally to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul II.  Venezuela has attached much importance to its relationship to the Vatican and has an Ambassador there. 


Chavez took advantage of his Papal interview to confess.  "It was extraordinary for me, a practicing Catholic," Chavez remarked, "…to have words with the Pope."


Chavez, who discussed controversial issues with the Pope such as abortion, also sought to court the Pontiff by emphasizing common concerns such as the "savage" neo-liberal economic order, "which had brought people to misery, especially in the Third World."


A month after his trip to Rome, the Papal Nuncio in Caracas, Leonardo Sandri, brought Chavez a verbal message from the Pope regarding the constitutional process in Venezuela.  According to Sandri, the Sacred See expressed its concerns about guaranteeing life from its original conception within Venezuela's new constitution. Later, Chavez met with Archbishop Velasco, who also expressed his concerns about the right to life.


Church-State Relations Break Down in Merida


Back in Merida, I query Torres about the breakdown in relations.


"Here in the archdiocese," Torres remarked, "we got into a very precarious financial situation.  We receive money from the parishes, cultural and academic activities and the well organized Archdiocese museum.  We get financing from private companies and banks, but the government doesn't help."


Torres said that the government had withdrawn funding from the archdiocese and seminary.  He claimed, moreover, that the Church had experienced some financial turmoil.  The Church, he said, had media enterprises in Merida including print, radio, and TV. 


However, he declared that recently El Vigilante, a Church newspaper, had been forced to close for economic reasons.  Meanwhile, the TV and radio station had very few financial resources to continue their work.


There were other disputes early on which set the course for future conflict.  For example, a quarrel over the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Hospital Foundation, which had been managed by the Merida clergy since the mid 1990s, turned nasty. 


"The Church managed the local hospital," Torres explained.  "The government provided the money for the staff.  The archbishop sought equipment abroad.  But, the government disregarded our contract after Chavez assumed power."


In Merida: Porras vs. Chavez


According to the government, Porras was corrupt.  The Merida State Governor, Florencio Porras [a long time Chavista, retired Captain and active participant in Chavez's aborted 1992 coup against then President Carlos Andres Perez], declared that public funding as well as private donations which were supposed to go towards the maintenance of the hospital had disappeared and Baltazar Porras was responsible. 


Baltazar Porras shot back that there was a "witch hunt" against him.  Chavez was personally apprised of the matter and the Attorney General proceeded with an investigation into Porras' bank accounts.


Dramatically, the police as well as the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, a special police and intelligence force [known by its Spanish acronym Disip] moved into the hospital and confiscated the facility's records.  The action was coordinated by federal authorities including the office of the national Comptroller General.   


In a further move which antagonized the Church, state authorities actually took over the management of the Hospital Foundation.  Torres bristles when discussing the incident.  Porras, he says, was accused of being a thief when in actuality it was the state which had behaved crookedly.  The authorities, he said, confiscated the hospital's equipment. 


Even as the government moved to clamp down on the Church in Merida, Chavez himself was heating up the rhetoric.  The President accused Porras of being an "adeco [members of the discredited and corrupt political party Accion Democratica, which had ruled the country for years prior to Chavez's election] with a cassock."  Adding fuel to the fire, Chavez remarked that the Church was "an accomplice in corruption."


Papal Intrigue


Chavez's holy war threatened to spill over and destabilize relations with the Vatican.  In late 2000, John Paul II remarked that "a democracy without values becomes authoritarianism."  The Pope made his remarks during an accreditation ceremony for the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, Ignacio Quintana. 


In Venezuela, politicians tried to make sense of the Pope's comments.  Jose Vicente Rangel, the Minister of External Relations, declared that he agreed with John Paul's statement.  "In that sense I am more Popish than the Pope," Rangel said.


In speaking with the press, Quintana assured journalists that the Pope "respected" the Bolivarian Revolution.  The new ambassador claimed, furthermore, that high authorities within the Vatican sympathized with Chavez and the social changes taking place in Venezuela. 


Lurking in the background however, Porras added his own spin to John Paul's address.  When the Pope said "a democracy without values," Porras said, the Pontiff was clearly referring to Venezuela.


While it's unclear what the Pope exactly meant, the Vatican sought to appease conservatives by giving the nod to Ignacio Velasco.  In early 2001 the Archbishop of Caracas was named a Cardinal by the Pope.  As such, he represented a dangerous potential enemy for Chavez. 

In a gesture of congratulations for his new position, Quintana, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, gave the Caracas Archbishop a pectoral cross made out of gold. 


Chavez himself traveled back to the Vatican shortly after the 9-11 attacks to meet with the Pope.  In an effort to smooth relations and emphasize common ground, Chavez remarked, "The Pope has declared in the last few days something that we have also said: that we do not support war…The war is against hunger…The Pope has said that one cannot respond to violence with more war.  I also say the same, for that reason I came to seek his guidance."


Lead up to coup


In late 2001, Chavez was confronting an angry opposition led by old guard labor, business and oil executives at the state run oil company, PdVSA.  The Church seemed to be moving towards the opposition camp.  In January, 2002 Andre Dupuy, the Papal Nuncio, told Chavez that he was worried about a possible "radicalization" of the internal conflict in Venezuela. 


Chavez in turn shot back that Dupuy was interfering in the country's political affairs.  In another address the same month, Chavez characterized the Church as a "tumor" on society.  A few days later, perhaps recanting that he had gone too far, Chavez invited Venezuelan bishops to participate in a dialogue, an offer the clergy rejected.


From there it was all downhill.  The Church joined forces with the CTV, a large labor union, and Fedecamaras, the business federation.  The outspoken Porras declared that, "governments that are democratically elected which do not comply with their promises become illegitimate."


The President of the Episcopal Conference added that anti-government strikes and protests, which had intensified, were not part of a conspiracy but the consequence of Chavez's own dogged behavior.


Chavez responded with more hyperbolic rhetoric of his own, suggesting that archbishop Velasco "pray a little" and "look into his conscience."  Speaking during his radio and TV show, Alo, Presidente!, Chavez criticized Velasco's interference in the political arena.  Chavez praised the Pope, while criticizing what he called "a small group of clergy that doesn't amount to more than five people."


The Chavez/Porras Interview


It wasn't long, however, before the "small group" actively moved into the camp of those seeking to overturn Chavez's government.  During the April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Velasco sided with the opposition against the president.  Velasco, who had earlier met with Chavez during the constitutional controversy, even offered his residence as a meeting place for the coup plotters. 


What is more, he signed the "Carmona decree" that swept away Venezuela's democratic institutions.  Senior Catholic bishops themselves attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona, Venezuela's Dictator-For-a-Day.   


In an ironic twist, Chavez personally called Porras from the presidential palace, Miraflores, and the Archbishop agreed to act as the President's personal custodian and guarantor in the midst of the coup.  On April 12, Chavez was brought to Tiuna Fort, a military facility in Caracas. 

There, at 3:40 PM Chavez was received at the doors by Porras himself as well as José Luis Azuaje, the Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference.  According to Porras, who was later interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the two spoke for hours in the midst of the tense political situation.


"He [Chavez] was serene," Porras explained, "very serene, and spoke to us in an intimate, confessional tone…We wanted to give him strength and energy to examine the present and to be able to look towards the future."


Porras added, "Chavez asked me for forgiveness for the way he had treated me."  According to the Archbishop, Chavez moreover expressed sorrow that he had not been able to achieve a more amicable relationship with the Church.


Poisonous Relations Return


After his interview with Porras, Chavez was taken to the remote island of Orchila.  Cardinal Velasco later confirmed that he too went to Orchila, where he spoke with the Venezuelan President.  According to Velasco, Chavez forgave himself and the two reportedly even prayed together.


Shortly thereafter Chavez was triumphantly restored to power.  Later, he clutched a crucifix when giving evidence to a televised parliamentary commission investigating the deaths of 17 marchers who participated in an anti-government demonstration and later coup attempt.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Conference drafted a statement condemning the "tragic occurrences" of April, 2002.  Bishops stated, however, that "in the current moment of uncertainty and tension it is necessary for the government and society to open a space for real dialogue."  Porras added that the goodwill of the president should be demonstrated with concrete deeds.


In an effort to appease the Church, Chavez later requested that the Church help to mediate in the ongoing conflict with the political opposition, which heated up later that year during an oil lock out.  Bizarrely, the opposition called on the Church to exorcise Chavez in an effort to counter possession by demons. 


Velasco, who apparently thought the request went too far, ruled out the possibility but was still critical of the government.  In the midst of the escalating war of words, John Paul II called for peace and reconciliation.


Whatever goodwill had existed following the coup quickly dissipated.  Chavez later stated that "there are bishops from the Catholic Church who knew a coup was on the way, and they used church installations to bring coup plotters together ... those clerics are immoral and spokesmen for the opposition." 


Meanwhile, a government commission recommended that the Attorney General's office open an investigation into Cardinal Velasco and Baltazar Porras for presumed participation in the April coup.  Velasco claimed to have received death threats.  When the Cardinal died about a year after the coup, removing one of the key opposition figures in the Church, riot police had to disperse crowds with rubber bullets at the funeral. 


As the funeral procession proceeded, Chavez supporters shouted insults such as "Justice has been done---he was a coup plotter!", and "The rats bury their rat!" Reportedly, pro-government demonstrators also stormed the cathedral where Velasco lay in state. 


Merida: an Embattled City


During the tumultuous days after the coup, Porras found himself besieged even within his home town of Merida.  A manifesto soon appeared in the city, published by the "Revolutionary Justice, Truth and Dignity Movement." 


In the pamphlet, the group declared that Porras was persona non grata, a traitor and a political fanatic.  The manifesto claimed that Porras was "a destructive, disruptive, agitating, subversive element" for society.  The group also attacked Velasco, who was referred to as "Judas."


In late 2002, Porras was verbally insulted by Chavez followers in the Merida State Legislature.  Porras had been invited to speak on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Merida Cardinal Jose Humberto Quintero.  Chavez officials from the State Legislature held banners and interrupted the proceedings by shouting. 


I have always been struck by the religious tone in the city of Merida.  When I was first there as a graduate student, in 2001, I observed many shops selling religious artifacts and candles.  Over this past summer, when I returned, I saw the main church full of people during Sunday mass.  Speaking with local residents in Merida, I learned that the city had been touched by political change. 


The woman who managed the posada where I was staying remarked that social programs initiated after the coup had made a modest difference in the lives of meridenos.  Her children, for example, were now attending some of the new Bolivarian schools (she complained, however, that parents had to shell out money of their own to maintain the school).

Poor people, she said, were now receiving food at the local government sponsored soup kitchens.  Near to the posada on a side street, I saw a cooperatively run restaurant sponsored by the government's vuelvan caras or "turning lives around" program.


To get more information about changes in Merida society, I headed to a government building on the main square, near the Cathedral.  Peering around inside, I noticed that the offices were plastered with posters of Chavez, Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar. 


Upstairs, I spoke with Ruben Aguila Cerati, Director of Electoral Politics for Chavez's MVR party in the State of Merida, and a former member of the Venezuelan Communist Party.  Cerati, a colorful, jolly man who had been a guerrilla fighter himself, explained to me that gender relations had changed dramatically. 


"Today we have 153,000 meridenos registered in the MVR [Chavez's political party].  Fifty three percent of these people are women.  In the political assemblies, women are the dominant force.  I can't say there is no machismo here in Merida, but women have been liberated."


Merida Church and Social Reforms


Not everyone has embraced the social changes in the city, however.  Back in the main cathedral, Torres spoke of chronic poverty in Merida's barrios, remarking that "change for the better has not reached the people, who continue to search for a means of survival."


Torres, echoing the criticisms of the opposition, also touched on the issue of insecurity.  "There's been an increase in criminal activity," he said.  "Merida used to be a very safe area." 

"That's the government's fault?" I asked.


"The government hasn't acted to adopt the necessary measures to stop crime," he replied. "People are afraid to go out at night.  You didn't notice this before, there wasn't so much violence." 


I asked Torres about the controversial role of Cuban doctors who had come to Venezuela to provide medical assistance for poor residents.


"We think that…this assistance has not resolved the health problem amongst the people," Torres answered.  He criticized conditions in a local hospital, remarking that "the service is horrible; people need to buy sheets, medicine and other necessities."


"Would you prefer that the Cuban doctors leave the country?" I asked.


"The doctors have helped," Torres conceded.  "However, the overall health situation hasn't changed." 


I turned the discussion towards education, a historically contentious issue between the Church and Chavez authorities.  Torres admitted that the Bolivarian schools had set up new cafeterias, a positive development.  In an echo of what the Senora had said in the posada, however, he criticized the government for not providing necessary assistance to local schools.

"A sign of this phenomenon," Torres exclaimed, "is that if you want a place in a Catholic school they are all filled up.  Everyone wants to get a spot." 


Government and Church Spar Over Land


Another controversial measure pushed by Chavez has been land reform.  I had wanted to tour the countryside but unfortunately fell sick with an acute case of bronchitis and had to curtail my trip.  I did, however, query Torres about the issue.


The clergyman voiced serious reservations.  In the wake of the land reform, he said, the campesinos had become radicalized and this had led to a serious confrontation "and an invasion of farms which brings problems and puts a break on development."


I wanted to get Torres' views on land reform as well.  Before conducting my interview with the local priest, I had read an article in La Frontera, a local opposition paper, arguing that local cattle ranchers had been obliged to hire hit men to defend themselves, ostensibly against kidnapping. 


The Minister of Interior accused the ranchers of inflating the kidnapping figures in an effort to justify the hiring of hit men, who had in turn killed campesinos [the secretary of the campesino federation has said that his colleagues have been killed by the hit men "as a result of the campesino struggle for land"].


Torres conceded that violence had escalated in the countryside.  However, he said the government was responsible for encouraging an overall climate of delinquent behavior which did not help the situation. 


"I think all of this government rhetoric starts to generate violence," he said.   


Across the square I spoke with Cerati about the rural situation.  He began first by extolling Chavez's various "mission" programs which had transformed the countryside.


"The campesinos now know how to read and write," he exclaimed enthusiastically.  "Here there is no longer any illiteracy: that is extraordinary."


The discussion then turned to health matters, and I queried Cerati about the Cuban doctors.  "Campesinos," he noted, "who had never seen a doctor now have them right at their side.  The Cuban doctors have incorporated themselves into the peasantry.  The campesinos are not suspicious of communism."


Unlike Torres, who blamed the government for rural violence, Cerati pointed the finger at powerful interests.  "Campesinos," he said, "have been killed and assassinated by these landlords.  This has happened in the south of Lake Maracaibo, in Barinas, and in Yaracuy.  The land belongs to the campesinos, the revolutionaries." 


"Merida has traditionally been very conservative and dominated by the Church," I remarked.  "How do you see the situation in the countryside, is it the Church supporting the landlords, and the government supporting the campesinos?"


"The clergy has always been right wing," Cerati answered.  "It's always represented the oligarchies, the bourgeoisie.  But, now the majority of the lower tier clergy are with the Bolivarian process.  There's an incredible difference between the clergy here in the city of Merida and the priests out in the countryside." 


Castillo Lara Turns Up the Pressure


Porras meanwhile backed efforts to recall Chavez as president.  In 2003 he remarked that Chavez had abused his power and his regime was a profound "social failure."  Chavez shot back that Porras had become a spokesperson for the opposition and should take off his cassock because he was not a dignified man of Christ.  "God is with the Bolivarian Revolution," Chavez said, "and here there are people with cassocks who oppose the political changes that we are carrying out."


In his own retort, Porras responded that in Venezuela peace and goodwill had deteriorated, while poverty, unemployment, corruption, violence, homicides and kidnapping had increased. 

Porras warned about the rise of cults inspired by 20th century fascist leaders, and went so far as to equate Chavismo with Franco, Nazism, and fascism.  Porras' frontal offensive was echoed by other Church leaders such as Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who called for civil disobedience against the Chavez government. 


With Velasco now gone, high Church officials looked isolated within the new political environment, characterized by a fractured opposition and ascendant Chavez.      Porras, though, denied any significant political division within Church ranks.  The archbishop met personally with John Paul II, who was reportedly very worried about political conflict in Venezuela and sought a peaceful solution to the polarization.


Pope Benedict: A New Direction?


After John Paul II died in April, 2005 Chavez again went to Rome, this time to meet with the new Pope Benedict XVI.  According to Father Pedro Freites, who heads the Venezuelan School in Rome and had formerly been the head of Vatican radio for Latin America and the Caribbean, Castillo Lara did not represent the Church when he called for civil disobedience in Venezuela. 


However, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional he remarked that Benedict was "aware of the situation in Venezuela and of the serious danger posed to democracy."  Castillo Lara, he added, had ties with all cardinals and had been the governor of the Vatican State.  He had submitted reports, and the Pope was concerned that a dictatorship might be imposed in Venezuela.  Ratzinger himself, Freites remarked, was close to Castillo Lara and had also spoken with Porras.


During his meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Benedict handed Chavez a letter outlining the Church's concerns.  In the note, the Pope raised fears that religious education was being squeezed out of some Venezuelan schools.  He also touched upon Venezuela's public health programs, expressing concern that the right to life be maintained "from its inception."

Chavez reportedly sought to overcome his government's differences with the Church.  At the end of their meeting, Chavez presented the Pope with a portrait of Simon Bolivar, the mythical Venezuelan independence leader who Chavez idolizes.  The picture bore an inscription from Bolivar's will, saying that he remained, at long last, a Catholic.


Following the meeting, Chavez declared that the crisis between his government and the Church had its "limits in time, space, and personalities."  The conflict that had existed, Chavez continued, had to do with a very small group of people.  Moreover, he was committed to "turn the page" and start over, owing to his "sense of responsibility" towards Venezuela and the doctrine of Christ. 


Church Hardliners Isolated


Indeed, Chavez had just reason to feel relieved.  Already, the Church had seemed to adopt a more conciliatory stance when it replaced the hard line French conservative Papal nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy, with the Italian Giacinto Berlocco.  Reportedly, the new nuncio was instructed to seek a less confrontational policy towards Chavez.  


When Castillo Lara said that Venezuelans should "deny recognition" to the Chavez government, Berlocco stated that the Venezuelan Cardinal did not reflect the position of the Catholic Church in Venezuela.  Chavez praised Berlocco for carrying out what he called "quiet and patient work." 


What's more, after his visit with the new Pope Chavez also expressed pleasure with other new Church appointments such as Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, who in his first address called on the Church to work for unity and understanding in Venezuela, and Ubaldo Santana, the new president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.


In the political reshuffle, conservatives had been sidelined.  In the race to pick a new cardinal for Venezuela, Savino, the bishop of Maracaibo, had edged out his more outspoken competitor, Porras.  According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, some bishops opposed Porras for taking such a radical anti-Chavez stance which had imperiled relations with the government. 


In early 2006, Castillo Lara once more attacked Chavez but his influence seemed to be much reduced.  Speaking in the west of the country before thousands of worshippers participating in a pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary, the Cardinal said the country was undoubtedly becoming a dictatorship.  When Chavez claimed there was a conspiracy in Rome to damage his government, Archbishop Urosa quickly grew concerned and condemned Castillo Lara's remarks. 


Moving To the Future


On my recent trip, I traveled with a peace delegation to Charallave, a town outside of Caracas.  Sitting in a Mennonite church, we spoke with Jorge Martin, president of a local group of pastors.


"Chavez," he told us, "has said that Church work should complement government efforts.  We recognize that the church needs to do social work and that the church has a role in this area."

Indeed, even as Chavez has sparred with the Church, Protestants have become a key pillar of the president's political support.  Back in Caracas, in fact, our delegation had observed a Protestant church which prepared government provided food for the poor.  Martin called Pat Robertson's calls to assassinate Chavez "unfortunate." He said that in Venezuela, Protestants of all denominations had rejected the minister's comments. 


Over the last few years, Chavez has done his utmost to cultivate the support of Protestants, which make up 29% of the population.  He even declared that he was no longer a Catholic but a member of the Christian Evangelical Council. 


In his speeches, Chavez hardly flees from religious themes and frequently quotes from the Bible.  Bizarrely, he also tells his supporters in speeches that Christ was an anti-imperialist.

Chavez's rhetoric, not surprisingly, has alarmed the Catholic clergy.  Freites believes that Chavez's long-term goal is to "create a parallel Church…that identifies with the revolutionary process."


While such views may be exaggerated, it is impossible to overlook religious overtones in everyday Venezuelan politics.  During my visit to a government housing project in Ciudad Miranda outside Caracas, I spotted banners on the street reading, "With Chavez, Christian Socialism."

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