This weekend the legacy of Hugo Chávez has been raked over the coals one last time, but the same old stats on poverty, inflation, and crime miss the real story. Chávez’s success is as much about how the poor feel about their place in society as it is about improvements in their material conditions. According to pollster Oscar Schemel, these days “it’s not enough to present a discourse offering food and employment; people want dignity.” Depictions of Chávez supporters as wacky, warm-blooded stooges overlook this factor, yet it underpins the remarkable longevity of Chavismo, most recently reflected in the victory of Nicolás Maduro.
Inside the Barrio, Outside Society
To really understand the impact of Chávez’s election in 1999 we have to go back in time. The former missionary Charles Hardy spent eight years in the pre-Chávez barrios (shanty-towns), and his memoir Cowboy in Caracas provides a striking account of what life was like for Venezuela’s majority urban poor. It’s a grim picture of everyday humiliations like throwing parcels of excrement down the hillside, mounting tension as water trucks fail to materialise, and shoot-to-kill repression of unrest. Within the barrios the state was an absence or a threat; within the state the barrios, entirely absent from official maps, didn’t even exist.
Under Chávez the barrios were charted and formalised, the title deeds going to their inhabitants. While problems with basic services persist, they are reduced, and crucially there exists the will to tackle them. One lesser-known social programme (Barrio Tricolor, right) beautified poor areas by repainting houses in the colours of the Venezuelan flag. Past governments liked to pretend the barrios didn’t exist; Chávez governments said “we know there are problems, but these are your homes and they are nothing to be ashamed of.”
Culture, Education, and Aspiration
Just as Chávez made it acceptable to live in a barrio instead of the gilded-cage apartment blocks preferred by the wealthy, his own unlikely ascent validated “Venezuelanness” itself.
In pre-Chávez Venezuela as in wider Latin America, model states and societies were to be found across the pond in Europe or across the Rio Grande in America. The more western ideas, diplomas, brands, and affectations you could get your hands on, the better you were doing. For the same reason, the barrios were seen as a third-world urban stain, whereas grand boulevards and futuristic skyways represented progress; they now make Caracas a sprawling, gridlocked hell. Politics was dominated by nice men in suits who cordially agreed to share power at every election, in line with the terms of their pact (of Punto Fijo, 1958). This was no place for a poor, afro-indigenous soldier with a habit of getting angry about things or breaking into llanera folk songs (below). And yet, in 1999 there he was slipping on the presidential sash.
This in itself would be enough to make Chávez a folk hero and inspiration, but there is more to it. Aside from revelling in Venezuelan culture and reviling cultural imperialism, he was committed to nurturing intellectual development and political consciousness.
The bizarre antics and fiery speeches that made it into the foreign press were less common than his musings on whatever philosophical, historical, or literary text he happened to be reading (for he was always reading something). In a country that’s not afraid of a bit of self-aggrandisement, he explored and explained without condescension. Articles about Chávez routinely fixate on his fixation with The Great Liberator, Simón Bolívar, but he was equally fond of Bolívar’s Rousseau-loving tutor, Simón Rodríguez, and it showed.
It is a commonplace to note that illiteracy was taken to the verge of extinction by another social programme, Misión Robinson. Less well-known is the fact that in Latin America books are prohibitively expensive, and literacy will only do you so much good if you can’t afford a book. Successive Chávez administrations used subsidies and state publishing houses to democratise access to the materials of culture and education. Taking from my shelf comparable texts purchased in Venezuela and Ecuador, I find that the Venezuelan one cost less than £2, the Ecuadorian one nearly £10. This is not unrepresentative, and Ecuador’s lower GDP per capita makes the real difference even starker.
In a society more accustomed to hyper-consumerism and rumba (partying), Chávez tried to provide the example, the encouragement, and the means for people to educate themselves.
Babette’s Feast with the Refugees at the State Oil Company
One bizarre moment from my time in Venezuela illustrates perfectly these changes in the state’s posture towards the disadvantaged, from distance and disdain to acceptance and advancement.
Before Chávez, the state oil company PDVSA operated as a “state within a state”, run for their own benefit by the economic, managerial, and technical elites that populated its imposing headquarters in Caracas. As any old article will tell you, after the top brass were removed for orchestrating a strike that wiped billions off the country’s GDP, Chávez made PDVSA the executor of wide-ranging social programmes that have greatly improved health and education.
But devastating floods in late 2010 revealed that the shift was cultural as well as operational. With thousands made homeless the PDVSA HQ – like other government buildings, including the presidential palace – was turned into a temporary shelter. State institutions that would once have gone to great lengths to intimidate through studied cultural distance were put into the service of the most vulnerable. Beyond putting a roof over refugees’ heads, they hosted meetings, workshops, and cultural events.
And so it was that after interviewing some oil official or other I found myself in a cavernous PDVSA auditorium watching foreign-language cinema with as ragtag a sample of Venezuelan society as you could hope to see. With the best equipment money can buy, in plush surroundings once reserved for well-oiled executives, I sat down with a low-ranking soldier, an old man or two, and a handful of riotous, track-suited refugees to watch the Franco-Danish rumination on sensuality Babette’s Feast.
And so what? Did the screening change their lives? Perhaps not, but it was not a one-off and it certainly had more impact than no screening at all. More significant than the event itself was the fact that the state considered this audience worthy of access not only to “high culture”, but also to the literal corridors of power. Symbolically it was saying “the arts and institutions from which you were excluded are yours and you are worthy of them.” This is fundamental to the socio-political inclusion that really could make a difference long-term. It would have been inconceivable before Chávez.
Between Tropicalismo, Rationality, and Dignity
The foreign media have remained blind to these changes, simply supplementing the usual “populist buys votes of the poor” line with a new “Maduro plays up spirituality to Chávez-obsessed electorate” trope that trivialises support for Maduro while appearing to explain it: “Y’know, it’s those wacky, warm-blooded, and irrational – if not downright stupid – Venezuelans!”
The prosaic reality, in Venezuela as in every other country, is that political affiliation is a fuzzy mix of self-interest, ideology, and emotion. After years of being tolerated at best, at worst ignored, is it any wonder that Venezuela’s poor revere the first president to care about them and give them confidence in themselves?
As a presumably serious, cold-blooded, rational European – atheist, educated, and entirely disinterested too – I’m also glad that Chávez’s project will continue. Whatever the faults of Chávez, Maduro, and their party, they have been a vast improvement on the bad old days.