Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Media Watch | Opposition | Venezuelan Media
Capriles, Homophobia, Anti-Semitism and Systemic Violence: Understanding the Venezuelan Elections
In the past few years, certain events have mounted serious challenges to what were previously held to be “universal truths” by Western society. The ongoing financial crisis has generated debate on a global scale about the future and viability of capitalism, just as the governments which continue to prop up that capitalist system, in spite of popular revulsion, have contributed to a weakening of the notion that Western representative political systems are the paradigm of democracy.
As hundreds of thousands of European citizens take to the streets to protest against the economic restructuring of their economy and the associated police brutality required to deliver austerity measures at the end of a bayonet, and as bankers and their lobbying institutions continue to crack the whip over national governments to steamroller these reforms through, the hoax of Liberal democracy in the face of the power of the market has been tangibly laid bare for all to see.
Venezuela is perhaps one of the best examples of how the fallout produced from the collision between a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of representative democracy can produce popular revolution, which can seep out of these cracks and begin to create something new. It is this fact which explains why the international media, and at this historical juncture in particular, so manically seeks to discredit the Chavez government and the embryo of an alternative society that it represents in Venezuela.
With the Venezuelan elections now looming, and with Chavez’s approval ratings stubbornly hovering around the 57% mark, it would seem that the international media has stepped up its “disinformation” campaign against the Bolivarian revolution with renewed urgency, producing the kind of biased, baseless and manipulative stories about the “persecution” of opposition presidential candidate, Capriles Radonski, that have been filling the corporate press’ Latin American correspondence pages for weeks.
For the past two months, articles in the international press have been denouncing what they refer to as a “smear campaign” waged against 39 year old Capriles. Various news groups such as Reuters and the Huffington Post claim that the opposition candidate has fallen victim to “government-inspired hate” and negative remarks about everything from his sexuality, to his “privileged” background and Jewish roots.
Whilst Abraham Foxman, Director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying that, “blatant and persistent anti-Semitism is used by President Chavez and his government apparatus as a divisive political tool,” the UK’s the Independent was actually forced to retract a piece entitled, “Chavez’s homophobic rant against challenger”, stating that “we now accept that President Chavez did no such thing. We are happy to set the record straight."
Although these claims were originally manufactured outside of Venezuela, it didn’t take long for the national opposition press to latch on to them and start reproducing them ad nauseum - despite the fact that these allegations are at best gross exaggerations, and at worst, total fabrication.
Without a doubt, the most problematic issue presented by these claims is the media’s attempts to categorise this “campaign” against Capriles as some kind of coordinated government strategy, or a “steady barrage of attacks” against Capriles from the “Chavez camp,” according to an article featured in the UK’s Guardian. It would be helpful if these news corporations provided evidence of these widespread attacks so that they might be refuted, but they do not, and instead, prefer to just quote endless streams of opposition politicians and U.S. funded NGOs as if they were more of an authority on Venezuelan politics than the government, Venezuelan social movements or the 65% of people that voted for Chavez in 2006.
Of the vast amount of articles appearing in the mainstream news berating the government for its victimisation of Capriles, only two concrete examples are actually put forward by their authors as proof of this persecution. Unsurprisingly, neither confirms the remotest existence of a state-inspired “hate” campaign.
The allegation that Capriles is being targeted by the government because of his sexuality has been attributed to comments made by talk-show host Mario Silva on his programme “the Razorblade”, a political satire programme which generally deals with the underhand and often illegal practices of the political opposition. Silva does not usually find himself in want of material.
Since it began, the show has not only unearthed opposition plans to overthrow the government, but it has also uncovered numerous activities aimed at generating general destabilisation within Venezuela, including plans by news site Globovision to incite disturbances throughout the nation’s prisons last year during the El Rodeo prison riots. In this particular episode Silva announced that in 2000, Capriles was found by policeman Jesús Teodoro Hernández engaged in a sexual act with another man in a public route in his car. At the time Capriles was mayor of Baruta, a position which he then used to cover up the event, avoid any charges and have the policeman in question subjected to a disciplinary process. This information was all in fact released by Hernandez.
Whereas Hernandez states that he wished to make the story public in order to clear his name and to halt the “barrage of threats” that he had been receiving, Silva maintains that he was covering the story in order to show how “power is used” and to demonstrate how “filthy power is”, whilst saying that it has absolutely “nothing to do with the condition of Capriles Radonski’s sexuality”.
Despite this, the media has magically managed to convert this revelation into, not just a case of homophobia, but to a state directed anti-gay campaign against Capriles himself, drawing on criticism from numerous U.S. LGBT groups, such as the “Christian Gays,” who comment that this is “typical of a dictator’s strategy” – blissfully unaware of the ironic fact that it was Capriles, and not Chavez, who abused his power to personally victimise a citizen in spite of national law.
Given that the corporate press are currently involved in an all out media war, which even more ironically equates to a smear campaign against the Chavez government, to depict the “fresh-faced, socially conscious Capriles” as whiter than white, it is no small wonder that they haven’t decided to cover the event in its entirety: Capriles’ little escapade followed by what could certainly described as an abuse of power hardly makes for great material.
This from an opposition which unashamedly attempts to denigrate Chavez in any possible way, from poking fun at his Afro-descendent features and his “common” way of speaking to his cancer-induced baldness, is a frankly breathtaking level of hypocrisy.
Anyone who has a television or a radio in Venezuela knows that, where the U.S. backed Venezuelan opposition are involved, there are no holds barred. Racism, physical weakness or classism, anything goes if it means getting the “monkey” out of power. In fact, insulting the president has reached such levels in the country that it is now completely normalised. Opposition media channels may as well just dispense with words entirely and simply dedicate 5 hours each day to showing clips of Chavez singing on Alo Presidente and having the entire sum of their viewers hurling packets of Mercal flour at the television. It would be like mass catharsis.
For instance, last month rightwing television station Globovision broadcast a text message from a viewer stating that he wished that “Chavez would die already and leave us in peace”. It is unthinkable that such an offensive comment, made in such poor taste and relating to a president currently suffering from cancer, would be broadcast in the United States or the United Kingdom. Yet in Venezuela the same rules do not apply.
Nor is the opposition a stranger to homophobia. In 2010, opposition “comedian” Emilio Lovera brought out “President Island” with Juan Andrés Ravell (son of Alberto Federico Ravell, former Director of Globovision) and Oswaldo Graziani, a cartoon based on the program “Lost”, where all of the Latin American presidents find themselves shipwrecked on an island together. The series frequently showed Chavez and Morales locked in steamy clinches all as part of Morales’ homo-erotic fantasies.
Despite these blatantly homophobic references, the Christian Gays were nowhere to be seen when President Island hit the internet, and nor were the numerous U.S. human rights NGOs, who have now leapt to the defence of Capriles and his rights to have sex in a public car park and not be punished accordingly like the rest of ordinary Venezuelan citizens, principally because his status allows him the ability to circumvent any associated and undesirable court summons that could result from his personal endeavours.
However, rampant hypocrisy by the opposition should never be used as an excuse to engage in homophobia within the revolution, as numerous progressive grassroots organisations within the revolution have pointed out. Although Mario’s comments can certainly be criticised for reducing politics to its most base level, and they can hardly be described as the debate of revolutionary ideas, to suggest that they are somehow indicative of a consistent and orchestrated repressive state policy which encourages homophobia against its opponents is absurd.
Whilst homophobia continues to be a serious cultural problem within Venezuela, as it does within Latin America as a whole, LGBT groups are growing and are increasingly present in the public eye; organising marches and awareness campaigns which did not exist before Chavez was elected.
Whereas the first gay Pride March was held in 2000, just a year after Chavez took office, they have since been held annually under police protection and with representatives of the state present. Equally, whilst all types of discrimination are outlawed in the 1999 Constitution, the government tried to amend this in 2007 to specifically include discrimination based on sexual orientation; although this was narrowly defeated in a national referendum as part of a broader set of constitutional reforms. In July 2009, the National Assembly also voted to pass a bill for gender equality through the first round of discussion. If passed, this law would recognise civil unions, the rights of cohabiting same sex couples to equal economic and civil benefits as heterosexual partnerships, and recognise the rights of those who "change their sex by surgical or other procedures... to be recognized by their identity and to obtain or modify documents associated with their identification”.
Paradoxically, whilst the revolution continues to grapple with the issue of homophobia both internally and externally, the opposition barely manages to throw together anything that even resembles a coherent gender equality or LGBTI proposal.
In a somewhat predictable and repetitive move, the opposition and international media is also claiming that Capriles, who is a practising Catholic, is the victim of an anti-Semitic campaign due to his Jewish heritage. Again, the “state orchestrated” campaign being decried by the media is nothing more than a single opinion piece published on a state news website called “The Enemy is Zionism”.
The article cites Radonski’s meeting with CAIV, a pro-Zionist group in Venezuela, as proof of his sympathy to the Israeli lobby and argues that Capriles will be the U.S. and by extension Israel’s right hand man in Venezuela, should he somehow manage to become president this year. In the article, Zionism is mentioned 8 times, the bourgeoisie and oligarchy 5 times and Judaism just once, to describe the religion of Capriles’ parents and why they were forced to flee from Poland.
Apart from this, the author does not again mention Judaism and dedicates the rest of the piece to an analysis of Zionism, which he cites as a political ideology that “hides behind a religious and nationalist discourse, trying to conceal its colonial character and its clearly political goals, its racial superiority, which are profoundly hegemonic. Zionism was born to put into practise imperialism’s plans in the Arab world and to strategically place an operations base in the region. It is, without a doubt, the ideology of terror.”
Clearly this statement can be debated, just as you can debate the founding principles of the United States of America and how they continue to be reproduced today, but what is evident is that what is being debated is the political role of Israel, and not the Jewish religion.
Even within the anti-Chavez psychosis that afflicts the majority of Venezuela’s opposition, it is still quite a leap to equate this one opinion piece with a state coordinated smear campaign against Capriles’ Jewish heritage, if not just for the simple fact that Judaism and Zionism are quite simply not the same thing. Where the former is a 3000 year old religion, the latter (generally speaking) has come to be associated with a historically and geographically specific political movement that explicitly defends the interests of the Israeli state.
Neither Chavez nor the author of the RNV article are the first to condemn the quite frankly genocidal practices of the Israeli state with regards to the Palestinian people. Israel’s expansionist policies have been criticised by sources as diverse as Amnesty International to ex-President of the Unites States Jimmy Carter, as well as by Jewish academics Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, or U.S. based Jewish rabbi, Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who just last month accused the state of Israel of intimidating anyone standing in opposition to its “blatant inhuman treatment of the Palestinians” by labelling them anti-Semitic.
Pointing out that thousands of Palestinians have been directly killed by the Israeli state; that tens of thousands more have been seriously injured, that the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is criminal, that Palestinians are forcibly removed from their arable land so that both the Israeli state and private Israeli enterprises can farm it and export its produce to Europe at a vast profit, is not anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Semitic to argue that, from a geo-political perspective, the U.S. has strategically converted itself into the guardian of this, as John Pilger has labelled it, “terrorist state,” and has committed both its military and economic resources to ensuring the survival of this particular form of state terrorism as a means of entrenching U.S. interests in the region; with Israel having received more military aid from the U.S. than any other country. Clearly, rather than this being a religious issue, it is a human rights issue taking place firmly within a specific political and economic context, and what has been posited as an anti-Semitic attack against the man Capriles was in fact an attack on the interests of the kleptocratic class to which Capriles belongs. A class which allies itself with U.S. imperialism on all fronts, monopolised power and politics in Venezuela until 1998, and which continues to be the elephant in the room when it comes to representations of Venezuela politics in the mainstream press.
Carpiles and Venezuela’s political clique
Whilst the abuse of power or the murdering of Palestinians doesn’t seem to present an issue to the international press, evidently pointing out the perpetrators of these acts, or even pointing out their very existence is frowned upon, and is either met with a wall of silence or a smear campaign masquerading under the banner of civil liberties.
By fixating on exceptionally liberal notions of violence in order to depict Venezuela as Latin America’s Bahrain, the mainstream media has once again totally ignored another kind of violence, which, incidentally, is currently ripping up the West’s social fabric in an attempt to save a now totally defunct financial system. It is this often ignored systemic violence, inherent to the financial system in which we live today, that is crucial to understanding the Venezuelan socio-political reality in the run up to elections.
Although Capriles and his press entourage would like to depict him as a charismatic peace-maker or a Lula inspired social-democrat, he is in fact neither of these things.
Firstly, Capriles is not a democrat; in 2002 during the attempted coup against Chavez, he was part of a group which stormed the Cuban embassy, cutting off their electricity and threatening them with violence.
Equally, despite the fact that he is again lauded by the international press for being “young and independent,” with the advantage of not being viewed as part of Venezuela’s traditional elite, 39 year old Capriles represents “Unity Venezuela” and is part of the “Roundtable of Democratic Unity”. Ironically, neither of these groups are unified, except for their support for the neo-liberal economic model and their hatred for Chavez, and nor are they democratic.
These two groups are made up of Venezuela’s traditional political clique, with Capriles signature being just one on the coalition’s manifesto, the others including political dinosaurs such as Henry Ramos Allup of the Democratic Action party (AD); politicians who overthrew the democratically elected government in 2002, murdered around 60 ordinary citizens in the space of 2 days, ripped up the country’s democratic institutions, shut down the country’s oil industry in order to physically starve out the country and continues to engage in violent activities aimed at destabilisation; all the while crying “freedom of expression violations” to the international media. Capriles is not independent of this bloc, but rather he is a fully integrated economic, political and historic member.
Not only was he previously a member of Venezuela’s Christian Democrat party COPEI, one of the two ruling parties which upheld the exclusionary power sharing pact of Punto Fijo between 1958-1998, (with the other being AD) but his family also happens to own a vast business empire. This empire includes cinema complexes and private media outlets under the “Cadena Capriles” chain, which by its own admission is the “lead” media group on the Venezuelan market, meaning that the repressed and persecuted Capriles has his very own political mouthpiece in the form of Ultimas Noticias, one of the most widely read newspapers in the country.
It is fortunate for Capriles that this mouthpiece actually adopts the form of the written word, because, contrary to the surreal assertions perpetuated by the international press that Capriles is in fact a charismatic speaker, his oratory skills are akin to a junior newsreader on their first day.
This was emphatically demonstrated last month when he wandered blindly into a xenophobic and extremely ill advised Prince Philip style blunder, but tragically minus the flair and delivery. In an unfortunate attempt to attack the government’s latest economic policy to control the prices of basic commodities, and to emulate Chavez’s relaxed way of relating to the general public, Capriles managed to accuse all Europeans of not wearing deodorant. The “joke”, which barely managed to draw a courteous laugh from the majority of those present, went as follows.
“The price of deodorant has gone down...now deodorant doesn’t cost as much...the problem now is that we’ll all be like the Europeans! We won’t use deodorant! Because there isn’t going to be deodorant! They might have been able to do this, but we Venezuelans have a different vision.”
Clearly Capriles is not Bill Hicks, and nor is this the kind of political rhetoric that will fire citizens up into a frenzy, with the exception of the usual hardcore Chavez hating Venezuelan rightwing, who can be relied on at pretty much any time of the day and regardless of the speaker’s oratory calibre.
The “Third Way:” kick starting private enterprise whilst maintaining social missions
If his political discourse is singularly lacking in vision and content, his actual programme is even more so. Because of the vague wording used in his electoral campaign, such as his campaign slogan “there is a path”, there is a common misconception that Capriles doesn’t have a clear cut political programme. This is in fact a fallacy.
Although once upon a time he subscribed to far-right political doctrine in the form of the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) and then through COPEI, Capriles’ current political platform could broadly be shelved under the rubric of the mythical “third way,” which, despite the broad and ambiguous nature that it was rightly accused of when debated within academic circles initially, as a historic and practical experience has revealed itself to be; the deregulation of market controls, the increasing provision of limited social programs by the private sector and severely decreased civil liberties. This is unsurprising given the fact the third way and the corporate state were first propagated by Mussolini, but more surprising if you consider how the ambiguous political proposal was unflinchingly embraced by “Liberal” politicians and media.
According to Reuters, Capriles political project is as follows; “free-market economics with a strong social conscience” - which is quite a disorientating sentence. Whilst you’re still trying to climb out of the 1990s time warp within which it is embedded, with the same old tired third-way rhetoric that dominated the political landscape until 2008, or at least until the end of history ended, you are simultaneously assaulted with what appears to be the non-ironic juxtaposition of “free market economics” and “social conscience”. In Venezuela, it immediately brings to mind a common saying; “What you create with your hands; you destroy with your feet”.
What Capriles is proposing is the privatisation of the country’s economy with minimal state intervention and just enough social investment to prevent riots. He is proposing charity as a means to compensate for the socio-economic structures which subject the majority of the population to poverty and wage slavery, or as Zizek has described it; the “the humanitarian mask hiding the face of exploitation”. All the while, he is giving the thumbs up to the system which allows him to come home to a veritable fortune each night after a hard day schmoozing the nation’s barrios, which are ironically the less than glamorous flip side of these structural inequalities for the majority of Venezuelans.
Despite the fact that Capriles is being presented as Venezuela’s answer to ex-Brazilian president Lula da Silva, what he is proposing in fact is more comparable to Brazil’s reformist experiment under Cardoso, which tellingly led to the greatest denationalisation process in Brazil’s history.
Most ironically perhaps, is that Chavez himself also purported the politics of the third way when he took office, but was in fact radicalised after being confronted with staunch resistance from capitalists operating in the country; who had no interest in working with the government to create a “nice and socially responsible capitalism,” precisely because the logic of capital is predicated on constant and expanding accumulation. It wasn’t long before Chavez found that, as Istvan Meszaros has said, as the contradictions inherent in capitalism become more pronounced, “the political system is incapable of responding because the political system operates under the ever narrowing constraints of capital. Capital as such doesn’t allow any more margin for manoeuvre.”
It is unlikely that this Cardoso style third-way politics will be a winning ticket in Venezuela, and not just because this political project has so catastrophically tanked across the globe.
Despite the accusations of clientelism often levelled at the Chavez government, Venezuela’s oil economy has long been the axis upon which the state’s relationship with civil society is predicated. As Fernando Coronil has argued, since the discovery of oil in the 1920s in Venezuela, the concept of democracy has been defined, not just by citizens’ ability to participate in formal representative democratic processes, but also on having a certain amount of access to the proceeds of the country’s oil wealth.
Such a political legacy means that it would be near impossible to win the presidential elections in Venezuela based on a hard-right ticket, with neo-liberal economic restructuring of the economy only managing to get through at the end of the 1980s because of Carlos Andres Perez’s now famous “about turn,” following an election campaign waged on a specifically anti-IMF platform.
Unfortunately for Capriles, however, Venezuelans also have firsthand experience of what happens when capitalism goes to the wall during a cyclical crisis under a Cardoso-type third way. They know full well that when this happens, the minimal protection of the state, the charitable mask of food handouts, free education and employment are the first thing to go, thrown off quicker than you can say International Monetary Fund and leaving you with the naked repression of the state. Millions of Venezuelans are aware and continue to remember this painful fact because there are still bullet holes in the capital’s barrios which act as a dark testament to this reality: when capitalism goes to the wall, so does the state’s ammunition, and if you happen to be in the way, well, there are others to swell the ranks of the informal economy.
In short, whilst Capriles has been coerced into offering capitalism with removable frilly edges as a result of the political shift brought about by the revolutionary process, Chavez is offering structural change as the only way to address the systemic violence which has historically afflicted Venezuela’s subaltern classes.
More aware than the politicians?
It would appear then that despite the selective tours that Capriles has undertaken in the country’s poorer sectors, he has failed to grasp the same levels of awareness and consciousness as the people who live there. Because yet again the opposition’s political ticket is based upon hitting the rewind button. Either ignorant or in denial with regards to the country’s profound social and political changes of the past 13 years, the opposition has also has failed to recognise that the country has undergone a dialectical radicalisation process since Chavez took office, which not only cannot be reversed so easily, but which has also rendered the whole project of the third way totally and utterly obsolete. This is obvious in the polls, where support for Capriles is consistently placed around the 30% mark. When compared to the last opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, who managed to gain 36% of the vote on the 2006 elections, it is quite clear that the opposition has once again failed to increase its core base of voters.
I was recently told by one Venezuelan citizen at a political rally, where we were discussing Chavez’s health and whether it would affect the upcoming presidential elections, that “here, the people are more politically aware than the politicians”. Capriles and his campaign are like a perverse caricature of this statement. Although he appears to have convinced Reuters that he is the man to “take on Chavez” with his t-shirt wearing credentials, he has failed to convince the majority of the Venezuelan population that his political programme for masked privatisation and laissez-faire economics with limited social investment to act as a band aid, represents anything other than a leap backwards to an epoch of privatisation, laissez-faire economics and limited social investment to act as a band aid.
This was made abundantly clear when I happened to have the pleasure of seeing Capriles launching his political campaign in the middle-class zone of Santa Monica in Caracas. Despite the upper class nature of the area and despite the numerous cars and vans decked out in balloons and blaring music from mammoth speakers, the reception was surprisingly lukewarm. Watching the spectacle along with some other bemused onlookers, I got chatting to a Venezuelan man in his mid-thirties.
“I’m not with the government, but these people are ridiculous. My mother lives in El Valle (barrio in Caracas), they have no idea what life is like for the humble people in Venezuela” he said, whilst complaining that the opposition’s parade was “dirtying up” the city by throwing leaflets that nobody wanted onto the road. “The government is going to have to clean this up now,” he said, shaking his head. I refrained from making the observation that this is, in effect, what they have been doing for the past 13 years.
The main problem is that Capriles came to deliver a message that has already been heard about a million times before. “There is a path,” he cries emphatically, without declaring what it is or where it might lead. Although such an explanation would no doubt prove to be superfluous, because Venezuela’s popular sectors are already familiar with the terrain, length and breadth of this path, because they walked it about 22 years ago. So they chose to build a different path in 1998, and then every year after that.
It is crucial that at this particular historical juncture, when the planet’s climate is increasingly volatile and with more wars than ever waged in pursuit of the planet’s increasingly scarce resources, that the world’s exploited become aware of the fact that other paths are possible and they are in fact being constructed. And hopefully this will happen before the planet is militarily devastated in a bid to preserve the socio-economic system that Mr Radonski continues to cling to in his election campaign.
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