Ignacio Vera looks just like Paulo Freire. He’s a patience-testing slow talker, and speaks as much with his hands as he does with his mouth. I met him and his family at a community center in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Later I got to spend a week at their house learning about the model of popular education they had been involved in since the 70’s. One evening we sat on their porch at a long table to consider some questions I had posed to Ignacio the night before. They were about the social and political changes taking place in Venezuela which are considered by many to be part of a Socialist Revolution. “Why is this process so centered around president Hugo Chavez?” I asked. “Isn’t it dangerous to rest the hopes for an entire revolution on one person? Do Venezuelan ‘Chavistas’ really believe that no one else can be the leader, that things hinge on this one personality? Or are there other leaders in this movement that I just hadn’t heard of yet?” Here is part of a transcription of our conversation. All the words are Ignacio’s:
...Choorie, your question is, “Why Chavez de unico?” Why is he the only one? But I don’t want to answer that question. It doesn’t have a simple answer. It’s not a two minute question. It will never be complete. I propose instead that we gather information and find out what information we have and what information we need. We need to document this and to make a time line to see what we know and what gaps we need to fill in.
First, I’m not Venezuelan. I came here from España in the 70’s as an educator. Many people came to my house in that time. Christians, guerrilleros (guerillas). We were working as a network to investigate the reality of Venezuela. To find out how people can change their realities.
In Venezuela things used to be very much like they are in los Estados Unidos, Republican-Democrat, Democrat-Republican. For us it was Acción Democrática-COPEI. COPEI-Acción Democrática. Designed to never change. Back and forth with corruption and no one held accountable. No one had any oxygen. Absolute poverty. And all of our national production, all the petrolem, was going to serve the United States.
And the entire structure, all of Latin America, was arranged to serve los Estados Unidos. OK. In 1992, Hugo Chavez lead a failed coup against the presidente Carlos Andrés Pérez. He failed. That night on TV he said; “‘por ahora,’ for now, the plan to overthrow this government didn’t work and it is my fault. Fue Yo.” There is a culture of powerful people not taking responsibility for things. But Chavez said “Fue Yo.”
After decades of working in Venezuela in our network of educators, out of nowhere comes Chavez. He appears and says; “it was my fault. I lost.”
Once Chavez was released from jail, after the coup, the entire country began to take notice of his style of commanding and how he made decisions. His style and way of being, his way of speaking was very similar to the way we operated in our network of popular educators.
Everyone wanted to know, who is this Chavez? But there was a lot of distrust because Chavez is military. Everything was right except that he was military. He was great but he was military! And one of his central ideas was “pueblo y soldado,” citizens and soldiers, soldiers and citizens. United. The people and the soldiers should be united! But there were many things that Chavez is unique for.
So, he succeeded in becoming a presidential candidate. Choorie, when it was impossible for him to be a candidate he won! This was impossible, but it became possible! Wow! Que dicen los norte americanos [As the North Americans say] “Wow,” huh?
He started to govern and he started un estilo totalmente differente. He began a style totally different. Chavez spoke like a Venezolano. He said “Nagwara.” [Venezuelan slang]. He sang. He danced. He recited poetry. He changed the constitution and everyone got to vote about what they thought of the changes! Wow! Instead of secretly letting the banks name the Minister of Finance he said; “NO! I name them!”
There was a US ambassador. She had an interview with Chavez and told him; “The US says you shouldn’t do A, B, C,” and Chavez said to her; “Leave! Presidente soy yo!” [I’m the president]. And the ambassador had to leave the country.
He did some very unique things. He even united the left that had always been fragmented. Not because he was the boss, but because they respected him. He is a very different leader.
OK,...in 2002 the coup against Chavez came. And there was a coup. For two days. But, Chavez came back. I remember it well on the television, the helicopter brought him down. Then the media ended the transmission. They stopped the broadcast. The broadcasters had been saying that he had resigned as president or that he was dead. But they had said he’d renounced the presidency. Mmmhm.
When Chavez was returning the media put on comiquitas. Eeeeehhh, “car-toons.” An entire day! But the anguish only lasted two days and Chavez returned. Wow! And Chavez spoke of unity and pardon! Wow!
OK. April to December, next came the petroleum strike. I don’t know, a month of lines for gasoline because the administration of the petroleum company was against Chavez. 2,000 employees went on strike against Chavez. So he fired 2,000 people in dos días [two days]. There were a lot of sabotages on the food importation too; flour, rice, sugar. It was to put people against Chavez and squeeze him out of the government.
And it was everything with the media. All the media were saying that this was Chavez’s fault. They were just contra contra contra [against] Chavez all the time. Choorie, more than 90% of the media outlets in Venezuela are in the hands of the opposition. But still Chavez survived through all of these things. And it radicalized him and the people.
I wish that there were ten leaders for Venezuela. But la realidad is that in the hearts, of the people... is only Chavez. There’s no other. There may be other people with good intentions. But there is no one who the people would respect and listen to. Choorie, its been five hundred years in Venezuela without anyone to trust in.
Five hundred years. Quinientos...quinientos. The normal situation of the poor is of slavery. Open or hidden. The structures of power, all, almost all, have functioned so that the people at the bottom work for the people at the top. OK? Always. The normal way of things is this. That means that right now in Venezuela we are in an abnormal situation! OK? Wow. It’s not black and...gray. This is black. And white!
Before I didn’t know anyone similar to Chavez. Fidel? But Fidel was a different moment. Chavez is going at a moment of US decline and at a time when the world is…needing alternatives. He arrived at the right moment. Evo, Lula, Fidel, Raul, Bachelet, Cristina, ten presidents in Latin America functioning on the same team.
They aren’t all Chavez, but, I believe, they’re a team. And he isn’t just saying “Venezuela is Venezuela.” Venezuela is Venezuela, but the homeland is Latin America! There are military and economic powers. Sometimes two in one. The US. Europe. Japan. China. The only real block to the military and economic situations of today is Latin America. Africa: absolutely divided internally by governments dependent on Europe and America. Islam: divided. China and India are run by global economics. It pains me to say it, the only alternativo is Latin America.
OK. Only having Chavez is a big problem. If they killed Chavez today this new historic current of Latin America would have to support itself in the other leaders like these countries have been supported by Chavez. I don’t know what’s going to happen. No one is eternal. And it is true that many times the leaders who have been in power for many years have been dictators. But there have also been great community leaders who have fought for many, many years. There have been great leaders who could lead their people for many years.
Who else has been able to be president for a long time? Pocos. Few because except Fidel and Chavez, they killed them all. Jacobo Arbenz. Coup against Juan Domingo Peron. The coup against Salvador Allende, the coup against Bishop in Granada, Choorie, they didn’t kill a single dictator. There aren’t good presidents because they kill them while they’re young. If you’re a dictator you get ten years twenty, thirty.
I thought a miracle was changing water into wine. But I changed what I though was a miracle. No! That isn’t a miracle! All of the power in the world is against him but he has maintained. What Chavez is doing is a miracle. I believe. Yo creo. Yo creo...