Mourning Chávez on the Web

It’s been fascinating seeing the response to the death of Hugo Chávez playing out on the web, for it not only confirms his status as a world historical figure, but because of the high symbolism of the event, which clearly exposes the fundamental ideological rift of our days.


It’s been fascinating seeing the response to the death of Hugo Chávez playing out on the web, for it not only confirms his status as a world historical figure, but because of the high symbolism of the event, which clearly exposes the fundamental ideological rift of our days—not simply the chasm between the rich and poor countries of the world, but the confrontation between Eros and Thanatos: the love of social justice, represented in the adored figure of the defunct leader, against the destructiveness unto death of the empire of capitalism, with its headquarters four-and-a-quarter hours flying time due north from Caracas (or less than three to Miami, where rich Venezuelans go to do their sumptuary shopping).

Web platforms like Twitter and Storify produce a fluid form of instant montage. An editorial in the Dallas Morning Herald, is quite brazen: ‘During his 14 years as president, Chávez fooled Venezuelans into believing he would improve their lives and strengthen their democratic powers. In reality, he accomplished exactly the opposite…Chávez squandered his nation’s vast oil wealth on socialist gimmickry.’ As if in direct response, a tweet points out that ‘Being vilified by the political & media establishment usually signifies you’re a threat to US-corporate world hegemony.’ A wonderful parody of this vilification turns up in a blog entitled ‘Every Hugo Chavez Obituary in the Western Press’.

‘Darth Hugo Destruktor Chávez, the outspoken and inflammatory Venezuelan leader, died yesterday in Caracas when the Invisible Hand of the free market reached down his throat and shook loose his gall bladder. He is survived by his four children and his millions-strong army of terrifying cyborg drones…’

The ‘socialist gimmickry’ in question consists in the redistribution of wealth, in particular by repatriating the country’s huge oil revenues and ploughing them into healthcare, housing, education, food and cash benefits for poor families. To capitalist apologists this is illogical, because revenues exist to be re-invested. ‘That’s right,’ says a blogger on FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), in response to an AP business reporter, ‘Chavez squandered his nation’s oil money on healthcare, education and nutrition when he could have been building the world’s tallest building or his own branch of the Louvre. What kind of monster has priorities like that?’ (The question is not quite rhetorical.) The former diplomat Craig Murray explains on his blog—and he should know—that the politicians, who are controlled by the ‘multinationals’, ensure that the ‘western’ states do everything to stop ‘developing countries’ doing this kind of thing. ‘Chávez faced them down. There are millions of people in Venezuela whose hard lives are a bit better and have hope for the future because of Chávez. There are billionaires in London and New York who have a few hundred million less each because of Chávez.’ We need only add: in order to do this, he also turned the political system upside down, and gave the popular classes a voice—they speak out in all sorts of clips and films now popping up on the web, and channels like Al Jazeera.

Chávez himself, being a great communicator, was a tweeter, so it’s hardly surprising to learn that according to an Argentine data monitoring company, there were more than 800,000 tweets in the 24 hours following his death (27% from Venezuela itself, 9% each from Colombia, México and Spain, 6% each from Argentina and the USA). But you don’t need data analysis to discern the opposing camps. What platforms like Twitter present is a fair dose of expectable political malice and stupidity, counterposed by strong contestation of the repetition of long-standing distortions, misinformation, and Orwellian language:

  • ‘Only 11 political prisoners in Venezuela but Chávez still compared ‏to history’s worst dictators’.
  • ‘Chávez has shown the Way: There is an Alternative to Austerity’.
  • ‘As @TolpuddleTim noted, Chávez was divisive. He took the country’s wealth and divided it equally, instead of giving it to his rich mates.’

An English political commentator, Owen Jones blogs: ‘Some of his smug foreign critics suggest Chávez effectively bought the votes of the poor – as though winning elections by delivering social justice is somehow bribery.’ The BBC is reprimanded in several tweets for its ‘Bogeyman Narrative’; for referring to Chávez ‘as a flamboyant and divisive charismatic leader (short hand for dictator)’; and for stooping ‘to fox-news level: <36 hours after Chávez death, he’s there with Bin Laden, Hussein, Gaddafi & Kim Jong Il’.

None of the disinformation is new. Various items recirculated in the past few days include previously published accounts of media distortion, like this one by Lee Salter and Dave Weltman on the BBC’s Venezuela coverage over a decade. And here’s a video of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking (in Spanish) at a symposium a few years ago about the ongoing demonisation of Chávez.

‘The baddie used to be Cuba, nowadays not so much. But there always has to be a baddie, otherwise there’s no film.’ So Chávez is cast as a dictator, but he’s a strange kind of dictator who keeps winning elections. And then you turn on Venezuelan television and radio or open the newspapers, and the first thing you see is endless journalists, analysts and oppositionists all saying ‘There is no freedom of expression here’.

Naturally the corporate media are much exercised by this. As Richard Gott wrote in the New Statesman a few weeks ago, ‘Journalistic NGOs and human rights groups complain about what they see as attacks on freedom of the press in Venezuela, usually mentioning in passing the forced closure of a whites-only television channel that would have been shut down much earlier in other parts of the world. Of the huge widening of the media franchise in Venezuela, in the innumerable new community radio stations and alternative TV channels, there is little comment in foreign reports.’)

New tweets appear: ‘Only few hours after Chávez’s death announced, Forbes blogger highlights how this is good for oil company’; ‘Oil prices may suffer if there is much uncertainty or civil unrest surrounding Venezuela’s election of its next president’; ‘Oil prices have risen slightly on news of Chávez’s death, but his passing away had already been priced into the market.’

The neurotic compulsion of the big media to repeat the old shibboleths comes into focus on the day of the funeral. Watching the live stream from Venezuela’s Telesur, a stylish rolling news programme soberly reporting the events with neither hysteria nor exaggeration, produces a curious sensation. This is the satellite channel Chávez created to carry the Bolivarian message of the greater Latin America across the continent, and here it is, called on to make the most of a huge unwanted PR opportunity. (There’s also a live feed from the government television channel appearing on Al Jazeera and news web sites like The Guardian.) The corporate news reports highlight the presence of undesirables like Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Lukashenko of Belarus, but what they really fear is the resolute display of international solidarity demonstrated by the presence of virtually every Latin American and Caribbean head of state, from Cuba’s Raúl Castro to Chile’s Sebastián Piñera, regardless of political and ideological differences, in what amounts to a tacit declaration that the decaying Washington Consensus is well and truly over. If the corporate media comment on this at all, it is to say, cynically, that they’re there to curry favour, so as not to lose out on preferential prices for Venezuela’s oil.

A tweet turns up that calls attention to what is going on in front of the web surfer’s eyes: ‘The man dies and the legend begins, that is inevitable.’ Will the web make a difference to how this happens? What will the future historian of collective memory make of its polymorphous archive?

The form of ceremony itself—held in a military chapel which provides an austere, modern, airy space—is a curious mix of state, religion, music, and television presentation, which gives the impression of an improvised bricolage of ceremonial elements, but it’s clearly designed to emphasise this internationalist projection. The foreign leaders solemnly take turns to mount an honour guard round the coffin. The religious homilies are closer to the theology of liberation than papism—one of them is given by Jesse Jackson, who was not part of the official US presence. The final oration is by Chávez’s nominated successor, Nicolás Maduro, emotional, hoarse, and rousing. The ceremony is punctuated by a group of soldiers calling out Chavista slogans with the same Bolivarian message:

‘Watch out! The people of Bolivar is on the march in Latin America!’

This is exactly the same cry, with just a few words changed, as the one I filmed on the streets of Managua thirty years ago:

‘Watch out! The guerrilla struggle is on the march in Latin America!’

The change in words is not insignificant—these are new non-violent times—but the sense of defiance is the same, and instils the same fear up north.

The music was provided by what is perhaps the most surprising success of Venezuela’s social experiment, the world famous Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, under its star conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, looking slightly bemused. Greg Grandin, writing in The Nation, noted that it’s not just the right who bracketed Chávez with ‘the worst mass murderers and dictators in history. New Yorker [music] critic Alex Ross, in an essay published a few years back celebrating the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, fretted about enjoying the fruits of Venezuela’s much-lauded government-funded system of music training: “Stalin, too, was a great believer in music for the people.” ’ Ross is this season’s celebrity classical music expert on London’s South Bank, but despite a special study of twentieth century music, seems to have very little political intelligence.

The day after the funeral, the BBC’s cultural station, Radio 3, had an item about the prospects for the music education system the orchestra belongs to, known simply as El Sistema, which has become a major source of national pride at home, and enormous admiration abroad: a grand network of regional music schools and youth orchestras where underprivileged children turn into classical musicians with all the benefits of the socialisation that music encourages (it gets them out of street gangs and off drugs). A success which has inspired musical educators around the world, the paradox of El Sistema is not just that an underdeveloped Latin American country should produce a world class symphony orchestra. The system was created long before Chávez came to power by José Antonio Abreu, a musical politician who served in the neoliberal government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, but it only prospered when a sceptical Chávez, who once described classical music as ‘the music of the oppressor’, was persuaded to give it his support. Presumably because despite his suspicion of Abreu’s politics, he recognised the argument that music (and the discipline required by the classical tradition) succours a social spirit. Politicians back here in the UK have been repeatedly presented with evidence for the hugely positive social effects of musical education, to which they occasionally pay lip service but otherwise ignore.

According to the English musicologist Geoff Baker, ‘Abreu did a deal: unquestioning public support for Chávez, including the use of El Sistema’s young musicians in pro-government ceremonies, in return for unlimited government support for Abreu’s project.’ The opposition complain that El Sistema has been politicised, and this, says Baker, is inevitable. But perhaps what fazes them is that their cultural as well as their material capital has been redistributed through an act of social inclusion outside the confines of the market. For me, this is a good enough symbol of what Chavismo represents.

Of course Chávez made mistakes, though not as many as alleged. An independent North American journalist tweets: ‘I criticized Chávez for being anti-semitic…turns out that was based on a quote manufactured by the rightwing media.’ Among the left in the metropolis not all are prepared to succumb to adulation. One complains ‘Yes, his gvt instituted important reforms but it was also a state-capitalist gvt that repressed independent workers’ mvts.’ (@therubykid); and another that ‘Chávez was democratically elected & helped the poor. But a demagogue who mismanaged economy & colluded with tyrants like Putin & Mugabe’ (@PeterTatchell). Since parts of the left stand guard against all forms of patriarchal authoritarianism, these are also expectable, if crabby responses, and they should not be discounted. But more interesting, because more surprising, is a paragraph on Huffington Post about China, where there was no immediate official comment, ‘but the Internet, the freest court of public opinion in China, crackled with praise for Chavez for standing up to the U.S. and for his socialist policies’. One academic wrote on his feed that

‘Chávez and the “21st century socialism” he advocated was a big bright spot after drastic changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe sunk the world socialist movement in a low ebb’.

Whoever doesn’t agree is not on the side of Eros.