Monday, July 19, 2004

The ideological potpourri that rules Venezuela

Sunday 18, July 2004

Certainly trying to define briefly what has been the shifting "ideology" that has moved the country for the last 6 years is a fool's endeavor. Whatever I could possibly write below can easily be argued against, and if anything else, just labeled by Chavez supporters as a subjective criticism of what makes the Venezuelan masses palpitate. So, why at this late time should I even attempt such a definition?

I have been reading the scholarly, and very readable account of Karen Armstrong on how fundamentalism has been evolving for the three main monotheist faiths that have shaped the Western world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to put them in a chronological order. "The Battle For God" is a must read book for anyone that tries to understand the diverse fundamentalist movements that are shaking our present day world (1). Surprisingly it is also carries some of the necessary tools that can allow one to understand what has been going on in Venezuela in the past decade. With the necessary allowances, obviously. I have already written earlier that chavismo has some of the characters that can be seen in a religious movement, or more accurately a cult. And I have not been the only one observing the almost messianic outlook that
Chavez's followers have for their leader and the future of their movement.

I will undertake to write as briefly as possible some of the interesting notions of Karen Armstrong. Then I will do the perilous exercise to fit them to chavismo and its historical perspective.


Definitions abound. I will strictly limit myself to what I found in "The Battle for God".

Very briefly, the thesis of Karen Armstrong places the roots of present day fundamentalism in the social and civilization changes that occurred in the past 2-3 centuries, where the conflict between logos and mythos appeared. Before that, humans somehow had a way to deal with myth and the meaning that it brought to their lives, while resorting to the practical aspects to solve their day to day situations. But as the technological revolution happened in the west, people decided to try to explain everything and thus made "the rational, practical and scientific thought" what drove their lives. But for some this failed to bring meaning to their lives. For some religious folks a return to "fundamentals" appeared a way to recover meaning.

The best would be to quote some excerpts from the introduction of Karen Armstrong.

[myth] was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back … to the foundation of culture… myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives.

Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof… Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers.

logos was the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society.

Unlike myth, which looks back at the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control on our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel.

logos has its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow.

And from chapter 6, "Fundamentals (1900-25)

Faced with the universalism of modern society, some people instinctively retreated into tribalism.

The fundamentalist campaign [in the US of the times] was perceived as a battle. Constantly, the leaders used military imagery.

Riley [a fundamentalist leader of the time] went further. This was not just an isolated battle, "it was a war from which there is no discharge."

and finally herself quoting a review (In his image, 1922) on William Jennings Bryan of the momentous 1925 Scopes Trial:

[Bryan] was "the spokesman of a numerically large segment of the people who are for the most part inarticulate. In fact, he is almost the only exponent of their ideas who has the public ear. They are part of the body politic and by no means negligible or to be regarded solely with derision as 'lunatic fringe' "

Clearly, some parallels to present day Venezuela are to be found.


Myth has always been a very powerful force in Venezuela. Our ethnic background gave us a large collection of myths. Our history kept most people away from formal education and thus certainly favored the unique mix of cultures and traditions that has resulted in our character as a people. But among these there are two myths that have been carefully entertained by all political classes thought our recent history: first the Bolivarian myth and then the oil myth.

Simon Bolivar is without a doubt, and deservedly, our national hero and one of mankind's hero for that matter. Such a life could only give rise to all sorts of myths that are most of the time unduly used for political expediency. From the heir of one of the greatest fortunes of colonial Venezuela, with an education stepped in the enlightenment, with a strong sense of class and belonging, Bolivar through history has become the excuse for all sorts of political actions, most of the time unrelated to his real life and thinking. His life is of course a fodder for the wildest imagination, from the glories of the "Campaña Admirable" (1814) and the creation of the "Gran Colombia"to the supposed betrayal by Paez in the late 1820ies and the birth of Venezuela as the Eastern part of the great confederation (2).

Oil became an important factor during the time of Juan Vicente Gomez when a 3 million people country received a steady flow of money which allowed it to reach a certain development without the pain of having to pay for it. Unfortunately the country grew and the per capita oil revenue shrunk constantly to the point that even if a way existed to spread evenly the revenue to every single Venezuelan, it would amount to little bit more than a beer and a small snack a day for everyone of us. Yet, many think that if they are in the sorriest of states it is because "someone" is stealing their rightful share. Because, of course, with time oil revenue has become a birth right.

The combination of these two myths has perhaps given birth to a sort of victim complex found in our psyche. Bolivar was betrayed. The ideals of the independence were betrayed. Our gift from the gods has been stolen from us. And there is no reason for us to think that Bolivar might have been a lesser politician than he was a military genius. Or to consider that what we consider the loot of our oil gift could be our indolence at hoping that someone else would do the nasty jobs for us without been paid, or our careless attitude that as long as we did get something for nothing we did not care if a third party was getting much more than we did.

Lesser myths have also layered the Venezuelan polity. From the leftist guerilla years we have a certain admiration for these guerrillas that went into hiding in the wet, thick and snake infested jungles. Che Guevara portraits have always been around in Venezuela and all governments did find good use for a well placed "Yankee Go Home!" graffiti, even if they paid others to do something that they could not be associated with. Castro was a friend of Carlos Andres Perez.


But reality would catch up with Venezuela at some point. Decades of mismanagement forced the second administration of Carlos Andres Perez to take measures to give a more rational and competitive edge to an economy build on a rent mentality. This did cost him dearly, a massive rioting in 1989, two military coup in 1992 and eventually his expulsion from office lead by his own political party.

A country where its leaders were the most consistent clients of astrologers, a country were many really thought that a lottery ticket was the way out of misery and up to power, a country were no matter what the Doctor at a fancy hospital said, a quick visit to the local "brujo" (medicine man, witch) was considered wise, could not easily accept that the world outside had changed. And it had. Oil was not enough to pay all what we wanted. And we wanted more. But as cable TV came in, as the globalization became a reality and a way to get all what we wanted, we did realize that there was a price to pay for it. There would be no Bolivar to lead us to this brave new world. There would be no lucky oil field that would take care of it all. We were told that we had to put order in our affairs. That gas had to be more expensive than water. That law had to be respected and that we could just not get away with things anymore, la "viveza criolla" (our street smarts mentality).

And we got scared.


Only Chavez for sure knows why he chose the path to revive all the Venezuelan myths in his discourse. But it paid off handsomely, at least for himself.

Already during the 1998 campaign, the early stages looked more like a crusade than an actual political organization. Chavez was fond to receive people for talks while keeping an empty chair available, for the spirit of Bolivar.

He came up with the "Bolivarian Revolution" where Venezuela would go back to its roots in the thinking of Simon Bolivar. Never mind that Bolivar did change his mind on more than one occasion. Chavez picked up what he liked best.

His crusade/campaign slowly but surely became the winning ticket. Corruption, the main culprit of all of Venezuela ills, the main betrayal to the Venezuelan body, was going to be castigated at last.

Chavez as an ex-military also appealed to a certain law and order fringe, to a time where it was thought that you could sleep with your door unlocked, to a time where a strong man would come and put order in the country, stopped all divergences and made us a unified tribe again where there was no need to steal, to cheat, to lie as we were all brothers. One tribe under one "cacique", and the Native American heritage on Chavez face certainly heralded to that, to the peaceful tribes that supposedly welcome the Spaniards.

But more importantly, Chavez spoke like the people, with its idioms, its values, its syntax, its vulgarities even. Thus he validated their lives and transmitted the message that they did not need to adapt to the new world, that he was the proof that the new world could be made to adapt to their beliefs.

Once in office the transformation continued.

Themes were added with a Chavez becoming a Cacique Piaroa if needed, or renaming the October 12 holiday, Dia de la Raza, (day of our mixed race) into Dia de la Resistencia Indigena (day of native resistance) going againstany of the logos of our history.

Themes were retaken such as the leftist love for Castro and his own iconic and mythos persona. The image of a Chavez sending kisses to Castro's plane is in all's memory. The globalization was excoriated and the FTAA became the boogey man, until the US president himself became THE enemy of the fatherland.

Rituals were created. Military parades became folksy affairs. The replica of the sword of Bolivar became the state gift. And the original brandished only by the hand of Chavez in all the great national holidays as the most precious relic. The large gatherings at Avenida Bolivar with a Chavez arriving in an open vehicle crossing through the throngs of adoring people to recite inflammatory speeches had more in common with religious services than any rational discourse. Even a Sunday service was created with the radio program Alo Presidente that lasted longer than any church mass and was as rich with symbolism and meaning and comfort by announcing all the avenging actions of the government even if disguised as new projects.


All seems to indicate that logos has left Venezuela. Chavismo operates as myth and as such it has met an undeniable success. Whether this is really a political system, a fundamentalist movement, a religion, or a sect, it is open to individual interpretation. But a few things are quite striking.

In his Recall Election campaign Chavez is not running on his record but on his own myth, fostered by recent social programs, the "misiones", whose efficacy is not the question that interests folks. Actually, a case can be made that all of Chavez acts since he assumed office could be described with Karen Armstrong words quoted earlier:
Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning

Indeed, Chavez has brought back meaning to the forefront. He has tapped into the need of the Venezuelan people battered by 2 decades of set backs for some sense as to all of this mess, to some meaning to what we are as a nation. Whether we agree with Chavez explanation is not the point. The point is that the did offer a meaning. Thus, it does not matter if Cuban doctors in the "mision Barrio Adentro" (3) are any good, or whether they do solve people's problem, or if it is as efficient at restoring the battered hospitals. What matters is that Chavez creates the myth of a government finally caring for its poor.

Karen Armstrong points out also that fundamentalism means looking at fundamentals but is not necessary a return to archaism. Fundamentalism can sometimes search for new solutions to old problems. Even that can be found in the discourse of Chavez. His anti US stance has brought him to champion any anti globalization stance and to try to become one of the heir of the Seattle battles. Perhaps his desire to unite South America into a trading block to oppose to the US is a real forward looking event though the end result might be made against his objectives: South America seems to unite to get a better deal when negotiating with the US, instead of excluding it as Chavez would like to.


Chavismo has many of the markers that would allow an observer to qualify it as a fundamentalist movement. It is not only that, of course, but as the tensions rise, the call for battle from Chavez himself, his manichaean division of society between those that are with him and the rest as his foes, are the hallmark of the preacher in full battle for good against evil.

Is it proper to coin the term Chavismo when its instigator has only produced a book of all his speeches, edited in Cuba? But Chavez has been able to tap into the dark corners of the Venezuelan soul, promoting lady luck, militarism, victimhood, machismo and what not. The genius of Chavez is to have made these virtues and thus become the great forgiver of our faults as a people, the faults that brought us to our dire situation in the first place. Thus is Chavismo.


(1) Ballantine Books, New York, 2000 (back)

(2) Bolivar dreamed of a Gran Colombia, comprising Venezuela, present day Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. But the differences were too big, and communications too difficult to make it workable. Bolivar's epigones ambitions could not be countered and when Paez realized that he either led the Venezuela break up or risk being tossed out, he chose to be the founder of the republic. Some people see this as the original sin of Venezuela.(back)

(3) This famous "mision" which is only a social program trying to have Cuban, and some Venezuelan MD, "go native" in the more impoverished areas. The idea is to bring primary health care to the people that for some reason might not even try to go to hospitals. A noble idea but without accountability and while public hospitals continue to collapse.(back)

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