An Engaged Political Culture in Venezuela

That’s the U.S. political culture in a nutshell. It feels more engaging to free a stretch of highway from tiny bits of litter than it does to participate in the political process. Not so in Venezuela. “One thing you can say about Chavez,” said one middle class Venezuelan named Ramon, “is that he’s got everyone thinking about politics.”

At a little stand off an uneven road switchbacking its way up and down the Andean mountains, we stopped for a thick, syrupy sweet cafecito. It comes in a tiny, two-swallow sized cup, providing just the right hit of caffeine to keep us alert on the blind curves, which paradoxically are as numbingly repetitive as they are perilous. The two Venezuelans we met there, also on a coffee break, struck up a conversation. We talked amiably for a few minutes about their work bringing potable water to nearby villages, their thoughts about the Chavez government, and the role of grassroots advisory boards (“consejos comunales”) in determining what projects the government will pursue in which communities.

“What about Chavez’s push towards socialism?” I asked them.

“Socialism is about sharing,” one of them answered. “If I have three shirts, and you have none, I should at least give you one of mine.”

By Venezuelan standards, it wasn’t a particularly remarkable conversation. We had many others like them – some quite favorable toward the country’s revolutionary turn, and others less so. But for those of us accustomed to U.S. political culture, where so many citizens are so fatalistic about being able to play a meaningful role in society, the conversation was indeed remarkable.

It’s not that people in the U.S. don’t care about their communities and imagine ways to share what they have. My uncle, a conservative, church-going North Carolinian with a portrait of George Bush on his fridge and a son-in-law in Falujah, has made himself personally responsible for a stretch of highway near his home. Every few days, he walks the length of it picking up trash. “Mostly it’s cigarette butts,” he says, and he can’t believe the never-ending supply of them. But he doesn’t mind. He wants to do his part. He’s happy to do his part. “You got something else in mind?” he asks me. “You think there’s something else I could do to make a difference – especially when you’ve got all those corporations keeping the politicians in their pockets?” Collecting cigarette butts may not exactly be engaging work, but apparently it is no where near as coma-inducing as attempting to parse yet another sound bite from another candidate that sounded just like the previous one from the other candidate from the other party!

That’s the U.S. political culture in a nutshell. It feels more engaging to free a stretch of highway from tiny bits of litter than it does to participate in the political process. Not so in Venezuela. “One thing you can say about Chavez,” said one middle class Venezuelan named Ramon, “is that he’s got everyone thinking about politics.”

“But I don’t like him,” he added. “I voted for him at the beginning because I wanted to get rid of the old regime, but now he’s gone too far. He’s scaring away the middle class. He wants to take away our property. We’ve worked hard for what we have.”

We met this man, who runs his own business distributing fly and mosquito repellent, at a restaurant in the beach town, El Playon, filled with Venezuelan tourists enjoying one of the last weeks of vacation. During an hour-long conversation, he let us know that he agrees in principle with socialism. He feels grateful that Chavez is a strong international voice against the Bush agenda. But he feels Chavez has become a dictator. His ministers wear Rolexes and drive fancy cars. And, besides, if the poor would just work harder, they could enjoy all the same privileges as the middle class.

It should not, objectively, be easier for a poor man to give up one of his three shirts than it is for a wealthy man to give up a portion of his much larger economic cushion. But the wealthy man has worked very hard to justify his unequal access to comforts. He’d rather construct an elaborate ethic that helps him feel that he deserves what he has, rather than acknowledging the insecurity that goes with luck.

This was perhaps the most significant lesson for my two daughters, who traveled with their dad and me to Venezuela during the last week of August – the pure dumb luck that makes them comfortable while so many others in the world are left without even the most meager comforts. They were acquainted with statistics about income inequality. They had heard that the vast majority of the people on the planet live on the equivalent of one or two dollars a day. But they had never seen mile after mile of shanty towns, built out of mud and brick and pieces of bill board scavenged from the side of the highway. It’s challenging to hold the cruel facts of it in your mind without succumbing to some ideology that says all is the way it should be.

“It’s too bad the middle class is so alienated,” says a street market vendor named Adriana whom I met in Merida. “They have a lot to gain from this process because they have some education, they’re used to expressing themselves and being heard. They could bring their ideas to the “consejos comunales.”

“Consejos comunales” translates as “communal advice.” Adriana explained it to me this way: “Before, the government would come into our communities with their own agenda. They might come and repair the road, for example. The bigger problem in that community might be access to potable water, but there was no way to express that to the government. With consejos comunales, we have a way to get together and determine our priorities at the local level and then communicate those priorities to the government.”

On the two Sundays that we were in the country, we tuned into Chavez’s afternoon-long radio show, which he seems to use to build momentum for his policies, and during which he reveals himself to be part motivational speaker, part preacher, and part popular educator. Whatever you think of his views, he comes across as smart, energetic, anxious to learn, and confident enough to truly interact with people. I’m sure there are plenty of background people orchestrating the show, but there are a lot of unpolished moments, and there is a clear absence of “handlers.” Unlike most U.S. politicians, Chavez puts himself in front of the public without a script.

During one segment, Chavez used an extensive interview with fishermen and workers in a fish processing plant as a way to explain how socialism works. His technique was to get the fisherman talking about what aspects of their work were socialist. He skillfully wove their comments into his own elaboration of the meaning of socialism, sometimes sounding like a patient teacher, other times lapsing into the cadence of a preacher.

During another segment, he devoted the time to talking about corn. He waxed poetic talking about the nutritional properties of corn, the fact that it has been sown in Latin American since hundreds of years before Christ, and noting the role of human beings in the planting and harvesting of this staple crop. He interviewed farmers, consumers, workers in a corn processing plant. He wanted to know about where they got their seeds, how many varieties they planted, and what they had learned from their decades of experience. He seemed genuinely interested in integrating their knowledge with his. It’s a common outcome of human conversation – that two people or a group should exchange perspectives and come out more knowledgeable and more conscious than they were before. But between a president and a corn farmer, this type of exchange is unheard of (at least in my experience).

He spoke at length with a manager about why a certain plant was functioning at only an 80% capacity. And he didn’t accept easy answers. At one point, it was clear he had a pencil and paper out. He was calculating the plant’s volume in tons and figuring out percents and posing questions about the impact an increase in functionality would have – not a trivial question in a country where so many people are hungry.

As radio, it wasn’t superb. (You could hear paper being sorted and you could imagine the calculations happening.) But for a North American like me, working to tune in to the political culture, it was stunning. A president was having a seemingly unscripted moment during which he prompted a plant manager to actually think on his feet – about something that mattered to the least privileged in the country.

He also brought onto the show a boys baseball team that was heading into a championship game. He spoke with each child about the position he played and encouraged them to play their best. At other moments, he reminisced about learning how to plant corn from his grandmother. “See, my hands still know how to do it,” he said to the live audience as he demonstrated his grandmother’s technique. Again, not good radio by U.S. standards, but he doesn’t seem concerned about filling the airtime as much as he does about communicating with people on multiple levels.

There is a subtle but key quality in this style of communicating. That is, it involves listening. Chavez has clear ideas about what he wants for his country. But his vision includes popular participation, and his style on the radio show modeled a dynamic between “leaders” and “citizens” that assumes the populace to be part of the process – not an obstacle to the process.

Granted, there is such a thing as paternalistic listening, where the listener adopts the proper posture and nods a lot and then proceeds to do exactly as he had planned beforehand. And Chavez did not exactly include opponents or debaters in his show. I would have been interested in hearing how he dealt with those exchanges, but the country is not exactly deprived of opposition opinion given that every day, the mainstream media features anti-Chavez headlines, parodies, and attacks.

It’s risky to romanticize any leader. Leaders are prone to corruption. But it’s also important to keep some perspective. Preaching about socialism while flaunting expensive watches and fancy cars (assuming what Ramon said is true), is hypocritical, but it is corruption on an entirely different scale than what you see in the U.S. Here we have a president who claims to be fighting for democracy in Iraq, when in fact, he is occupying the country illegally while he enriches defense contractors (who destroy the place) and construction contractors (who get paid to rebuild it). That is hypocrisy on a scale that is almost too difficult to grasp (unlike the Rolex, which ironically causes more ire by virtue of the fact that it is comprehensible).

Meanwhile, what do I hear from Bush upon our return to the U.S.? “We’re kicking ass in Iraq,” he is quoted in the Boston Globe as saying to the Australian prime minister. Not only is it a blatant lie, it is inexcusable macho posturing in the face of an all-out tragedy for the Iraqi people, as well as many Americans, whose lives have been destroyed by the war.

Back in Miami at the end of our trip, we talked about how we would miss the lively culture of political participation we had learned about in Venezuela. We would miss the president who eschewed sound bites and talked and listened deeply about things that matter. We would miss the thoughtful political discussions you could have with workers at the roadside coffee stand.

As if on cue, my 11-year old noticed a key way we create community and share ideas in the U.S. She pointed at her Starbucks cup, which had a David Copperfield quote on it about how the most important thing in life is to stop saying “I wish,” and to start saying “I will.”

Back in the states, with a president who acts like a drunk fraternity brother, directives about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps coming at us from the sides of to-go coffee cups, and an uncle who makes his presence felt on the shoulder of a lonely North Carolina highway, we’ll remember the existence of another model in Venezuela.