Book review: "Venezuela - Revolution as Spectacle" by Rafael Uzcátegui

Book review: "Venezuela - Revolution as Spectacle" by Rafael Uzcátegui

In times of global austerity and reduced means, the concept of ‘revolution’ is once again in popular discourse, with recent events in North Africa being feted throughout the West. However, Rafael Uzcátegui’s engaging new book – packed, as it is, full of assertion supported by meticulously-sourced fact - stands as a stark reminder of the semantic vacuity of the term, in one Latin American country at least, and the similarities between the self-professed ‘revolutionary government’ of Venezuela and the capitalist economic model.

Uzcátegui, a key organiser in the independent Venezuelan human rights group, PROVEA, as well as a co-editor of the nation’s sole anarchist newspaper, El Libertario, states his thesis clearly in the introduction: Hugo Chávez’s regime in Venezuela is neither the socialist paradise of his own government’s propaganda, nor is it the nightmarish totalitarian dictatorship of the right-wing opposition’s depictions. Rather, it is very much a continuation of the trajectory of Venezuelan – and, indeed, Latin American – governance, based around the precepts of the caudillo (a strongman leader who presents himself as independent from, and superior to, government), populism and, ultimately, subordination to capital and North American corporate interests. Where chavismo differs from its predecessors, argues Uzcátegui, is in its successful creation of a rhetorical smokescreen of self-styled “socialismo del siglo 21” (“21st century socialism”); a sort of Debordian spectacle, in which the public pronouncements from both sides of the political divide feed into the mythical image of a socialised, collectivised Venezuela. The political elites, Uzcátegui argues, collude in order to present a disingenuous – yet mutually beneficial – binary: if you want socialism, vote for Chávez and PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela – Chávez’ party); if you want a free market, vote for the right wing opposition.

The mirage of Venezuelan socialism also takes on an international angle with the endorsements of Chávez by radical intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert. Meanwhile, thousands of leftist tourists are taken on state-sanctioned, airbrushed tours of la Revolución bolivariana, and the world’s media prefer reprinting the Venezuelan President’s erratic, eccentric diatribes about revolution to a investigating the material reality of the country.

Therefore, with the absence of a political discourse rooted in the realities of everyday life, Uzcátegui takes it up on himself to offer us an admirably forensic analysis of contemporary Venezuela. But, rather than the Situationist analytical style which the title and opening thesis may have led the reader to anticipate, Uzcátegui opts for a huge array of statistics with which to present his case. Collectively and individually, the reams of figures serve to debunk the two common myths about the country in the 12 years since Chávez’ election: firstly, that chavista policy has anything to do with socialism or communism, and secondly (in contrast to the all too common and confident assertions of the post-Stalinist and ‘anti-imperialist’ international left), that the quality of life has materially improved for the majority of Venezuelans.

Using the same techniques as the civil society within which he works, Uzcátegui examines phenomena such as the exponential rise in homicides under Chávez (up to 14,000 nationally in 2009 – this in a country with less than half the UK’s population!), the impunity with which police and military personnel operate and the stagnation of workers’ rights via, amongst other things, the cooptation of the Venezuelan union movement.

The misiones (Chávez’ social programmes, much-lauded by the international left as evidence of the nation’s prosperity under socialism) are given special attention, yet fact is again shown to clash with perception. Housing and food distribution are beset by problems and, if anything, are actually worsening. Barrio Adentro – a programme in which thousands of small, basic health clinics were built in urban barrios and small villages – is exposed as a crude white elephant which, despite its revered international status as an healthcare model to be emulated, was never coordinated with the nation’s existent public health system, and therefore serves to undermine it, leading to a decline in the quality of maternity care, amongst other things.

As Uzcátegui wryly notes, beyond their rhetoric about the advances in Venezuelan healthcare, the bureaucrats and politicians can’t have that much faith in the system; after all, they all go to private clinics in Miami when they’re ill! (Even Chávez scampered to Cuba when he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.) Moreover (and this is a crucial point vis a vis the projection of chavismo as ‘revolutionary’), the misiones – far from representing a break from the ancien regime’s approach to poverty - are almost identical to the social policies of Chávez’ predecessors.

Another field in which Chávez’ rhetoric is shown to be similar to that of his predecessors is that of oil, which, as Venezuela’s only significant natural resource, plays a huge role in national economics, politics and even culture. Much of Uzcátegui’s extensive research on oil in Venezuela is fascinating – depicting Chávez as a petrol privateer, despite the ongoing discourse about oil nationalisation – but unfortunately, it was during this extensive chapter, more than any other, when I wished for a break from the occasionally overwhelming piles of numbers. It seems likely that the orientation towards statistics was in part a defensive mechanism, as El Libertario are the victims of an ongoing international smear campaign by much of the self-styled international socialist movement. Uzcátegui repeatedly reminds us that most of Chávez’ more high profile sponsors – such as Chomsky and Albert, who is ruthlessly lampooned – have only spent a matter of hours in the country, and, as such, can’t have even glimpsed the genuine nature of existence there. Moreover, as Adam Curtis and others have highlighted, politics is often a question of manipulating - and then appealing to – popular, irrational fears and misconceptions, and the author’s efforts to reconfigure a nation’s political debate towards the realm of factual knowledge must be applauded.

However, real life tends to be far more complicated than statistics. Many of Revolution as Spectacle‘s best moments are found within the cool oases of illustrative anecdotes, potted histories and personal descriptions. These – occasional though they were – allowed the reader to trace the consequences of the processes that had been mathematically detailed, putting faces to problems, and names to faces. This reader, for instance, probably won’t remember any of the book’s cited indexes of economic growth, but he distinctly remembers the expressions on the faces of the two survivors of military-instigated El Amparo massacre as they appear in a chapter-concluding photograph. On a related note, the translator – who confesses to altering the book’s structure when converting it into English – could have considered the inclusion of a brief history of Venezuela, or even just chavismo, in order to make the work accessible to those who, unlike this particular reader, have had limited engagement with the country.

None of these minor points, however, really serve to detract from the ability of Revolution as Spectacle to lay a benchmark in the study of resurgent ‘revolutionary regimes’ across the world. Europe may well be largely immunised against left-wing populism (after all, aren’t the hated austerity regimes in Greece, Spain and Portugal all being implemented by ‘socialist’ parties?), but the fervour for lasting social change has been similarly recuperated in Egypt and Tunisia, while leaders in much of the developing world must be busily strategising for ripples of discontent nearer to home. When the moment of truth arrives, one can but hope that revolutionaries are wise enough to reject the erection of another spectacle of faux-change.

In response to chavismo, Uzcátegui advocates independent, bottom up organising, based around social movements and interest groups, taking his cue from autonomists such as Negri and the Uruguayan author Raúl Zibechi, pointing to the Comité de Víctimas Contra de Impunidad (Victims’ Committee Against Impunity) - a small group of relatives of victims of police murders in Lara state who campaign for legal proceedings – as an example. This reader met some of them in Caracas in 2009 and was impressed, both by the intensity of their experiences, and by the direct, personal relationship they had with their organising efforts. Unfortunately, even Uzcátegui accepts that they are only the autonomous group of their kind (a lot of other social movements still consider themselves as part of el proceso chavista, even when the state imprisons them!). El Libertario itself continues to struggle against the political polarisation in Venezuela, offering an unparalleled level of socio-political analysis to a lamentably limited audience. The urge to organise around one’s material conditions, independently and from the base, is what must be fomented in Venezuela, through words, but also - crucially - through actions.

Comments

bastarx
Sep 9 2011 14:14

White pony? Did you mean elephant?

Caiman del Barrio
Sep 9 2011 18:51

Yeah i do, thanks for that!

Mark.
Sep 9 2011 23:18
jdoggg
May 2 2012 19:13

Obviously a highly controversial subject. An interesting book. Look for other reviews. This review is not very trustworthy. He neglects to point out that the massacre in the SW was not on Chavez's watch. It was the work of the right wing pre-Bolivarian military. The question, of course, is whether the old military has changed.

I am a US citizen who has traveled through some of the regions most criticized in the book (Lara). The Cuban run clinics, I can tell you, were beautiful, by no means the kind of thing that (Norte) Americans expect, but better than the fakery and hocus pocus folk medicine typical of poor countries.

I actually found myself wondering if the CIA put this guy up to writing this book. But, no, that's too paranoid. I did meet lefty Venezuelans who grumbled about Chavez. I can understand why. What's hard to get is why the rich hate him with such poisonous intensity.

Caiman del Barrio
May 2 2012 21:57

I'm really reluctant to engage with this post, considering how it appears to be either written with a smearing agenda, or from a position of base ignorance that is frankly insulting given its 'review' of the OP, but in the interests of posterity, I'm gonna give this a brief reply:

jdoggg wrote:
Obviously a highly controversial subject. An interesting book. Look for other reviews. This review is not very trustworthy.

Maybe not, but it's more so than the one which repeats the lie (I know for a fact it's a lie, I've met the people in question) of this being "CIA-backed".

Quote:
He neglects to point out that the massacre in the SW was not on Chavez's watch. It was the work of the right wing pre-Bolivarian military. The question, of course, is whether the old military has changed.

Assuming you're referring to El Amparo, then surely the issue is one of impunity for the guilty parties that has continued under Chávez? Ditto, el caracazo, etc, etc. Chávez is a military man after all.

Quote:
I am a US citizen who has traveled through some of the regions most criticized in the book (Lara).

Yeah that's fucking great. I'm a British citizen who lived in Venezuela.

Beyond that though, I've tried to base my approach to life in fact and experience, not bullshit and/or politically-motivated smear.

Quote:
The Cuban run clinics, I can tell you, were beautiful, by no means the kind of thing that (Norte) Americans expect, but better than the fakery and hocus pocus folk medicine typical of poor countries.

So riiiight, before Chávez there was no public health system, no notion of 'Western' medicine, just stupid n*****s doing "hocus pocus"? Did you go with the Peace Corps or something?

Quote:
I actually found myself wondering if the CIA put this guy up to writing this book.

Hi, you do realise that the US is Venezuela's second biggest trading partner right? And why would the CIA support a miniscule group of academics with absolutely zero traction within the working class, when there's already a broad and reasonably popular opposition to Chávez (he's been defeated in one referendum, almost lost parliamentary elections in '10)?

Quote:
I can understand why. What's hard to get is why the rich hate him with such poisonous intensity.

There's a clue in the book title. And the opening paragraph of the book review you so ignorantly disparaged.

jdoggg
May 16 2012 04:56

Hi Caimen, I am puzzled by the tone of your response.
It seems we agree on much about Venezuela. Consider the Cuban clinics. We both admire them. But the clinics and the Missions, to the extent that they're positives, undercut Uzcategui's views about the limits of Chavez's project.

I agree about El Amparo, but I do think your review doesn't make the dates clear and therefore appears to be blaming Chavez for something that happened before he was the caudillo in charge. In the USA, where misinformation about Venezuela is the norm, I naturally find myself suspicious of precisely this kind of deniable innuendo.

I mentioned my suspicions ( which I dismissed)about the CIA being involved in this book as a way of reflecting on how vexed thinking about the Bolivarian movement has become. Uzcategui seemed to be a kind of Trotsky to Chavez's Stalin, and like a true CP member of the 30s, I found myself suspecting him of working for the imperialists.

But, don't you think the US government would fund a project designed to disenchant American leftists enamored of Chavez? Why are they building all those bases in Columbia? An attack on Venezuela would require a much more sophisticated propaganda drive than the kind of trash printed in Miami newspapers. It would require reaching American leftists, the ones who chanted HO, HO, HO Chi Minh might otherwise be chanting ...well, something about Hugo.

Another thing: I didn't claim to be a Venezuela expert. I visit. I read. I think.

Weren't you disturbed by how much of Uzcategui's criticism seem to echo the opposition?

All in all, I think you responded kind of crudely to my comments, misreading my uncertainty. Your review is too laudatory of a book which throws together a lot of stuff, not very well written, and half digested. But I do think Uzcategui's general point, that the 'revolution' is very limited, and tightly controlled is worth serious reflection.

jonthom
May 16 2012 10:53

Incidentally, El Libertario have recently published a three part collection of selected writings in English which may be of interest though I've not had time to read it myself as yet.

Has there been any response to this book from the pro-Chavez left as yet?

Caiman del Barrio
May 16 2012 14:46
jonthom wrote:
Incidentally, El Libertario have recently published a three part collection of selected writings in English which may be of interest though I've not had time to read it myself as yet.

I was on the translation team and fully intend(ed) to upload the pertinent parts onto here. Some of it is fascinating, some less so...

Caiman del Barrio
May 16 2012 15:35
jdoggg wrote:
Hi Caimen, I am puzzled by the tone of your response.

Sorry mate, but in my defence, you did call my review "untrustworthy" before repeating a common smear about El Lib being funded by the CIA. This isn't just irresponsible (since you admit you have absolutely no basis on which to state it), it's also dangerous. A similar thread was made on this very forum making the same claim 5 years ago. It was thoroughly debunked and the poster was eventually banned cos of his mentalness, but the thread remained and was actually LINKED TO AS EVIDENCE by smearing pro-chavistas in British debates about Venezuela.

(I've just gone and searched for the thread to show you what I mean, but the admins appear to have deleted it?)

Quote:
It seems we agree on much about Venezuela. Consider the Cuban clinics. We both admire them. But the clinics and the Missions, to the extent that they're positives, undercut Uzcategui's views about the limits of Chavez's project.

I don't think you've read either the review or the book itself, since this isn't what Uzcátegui says. Rather, I summarise his critique of the health system thus:

me wrote:
Barrio Adentro – a programme in which thousands of small, basic health clinics were built in urban barrios and small villages – is exposed as a crude white elephant which, despite its revered international status as an healthcare model to be emulated, was never coordinated with the nation’s existent public health system, and therefore serves to undermine it, leading to a decline in the quality of maternity care, amongst other things.

As Uzcátegui wryly notes, beyond their rhetoric about the advances in Venezuelan healthcare, the bureaucrats and politicians can’t have that much faith in the system; after all, they all go to private clinics in Miami when they’re ill! (Even Chávez scampered to Cuba when he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.)

Quote:
I agree about El Amparo, but I do think your review doesn't make the dates clear and therefore appears to be blaming Chavez for something that happened before he was the caudillo in charge.

Is this really pertinent though? The point that is made about El Amparo is that there's been a consistent refusal to adequately investigate it and pursue charges against the soldiers in question, which has continued up until this day, most probably for military-strategic reasons (the area lies on the border with Colombia).

Quote:
Uzcategui seemed to be a kind of Trotsky to Chavez's Stalin, and like a true CP member of the 30s, I found myself suspecting him of working for the imperialists.

Sorry, but this is very confusing Firstly, are you actually vindicating Stalinist revisionism and deliberate slander? how is Uzcátegui comparable to Trotsky: he has nothing like the same political approach or social base!

Quote:
But, don't you think the US government would fund a project designed to disenchant American leftists enamored of Chavez?

No, and if they did, it would be a hell of a lot more publicly accessible/populist than El Libertario. Moreover, I've met them and I can personally vouch for them.

Quote:
Why are they building all those bases in Columbia? An attack on Venezuela would require a much more sophisticated propaganda drive than the kind of trash printed in Miami newspapers. It would require reaching American leftists, the ones who chanted HO, HO, HO Chi Minh might otherwise be chanting ...well, something about Hugo.

Once again, I think this totally wrong. The US have zero interest in attacking Venezuela: for starters, they're the Bolivarian regime's second biggest trading partner (behind, yep, Colombia!). Moreover, why would they aim at the (tiny) American pro-chavista left for their propaganda drives? When has US foreign policy ever leant on its domestic 'far' left for support as a precursor to military action?

Quote:
Another thing: I didn't claim to be a Venezuela expert. I visit. I read. I think.

OK that's fine, but do you wanna stop going around telling people not to read my work before spouting unfoudned bullshit then? Do you understand why I'd find that objectionable?

Quote:
Weren't you disturbed by how much of Uzcategui's criticism seem to echo the opposition?

Well I tried to zone out much of the right wing opposition discourses when I was out there. What I did hear from my students tended to be quite bigoted and ignorant, but even elements within the antichavista student movement had some valid things to say, as I noted in an earlier blog: http://libcom.org/blog/no-light-no-water-now-not-very-much-moneywhat-next-venezuela-31012010

RE The Opposition: I think there's a convenient doublethink/goalpost moving exercise which chavistas use to debunk criticism. Anyone who criticises Chávez is implicitly in 'opposition' to him, but that doesn't necessarily mean s/he associates with the ugly, right wing ancien regime.

It often surprises leftists to hear that actually most of the country isn't enamoured with Chávez. Some people adore him, some people detest him, but most - just like anywhere else! - roll their eyes at the constant corruption, duplicity and deceptions of the political classes and the poor quality of life and provision in Venezuela. Sometimes this discontent manifests itself publicly, in things like student demonstrations. Some of these student demonstrations are organised by the official right wing opposition, and some others are coopted to varying degrees of success. this doesn't mean that all these tens of thousands of students are coup plotters/opposition party members/opposition party voters.

So yes, of course some of Uzcátegui's arguments maybe replicated within the opposition, this is hardly the point.

Quote:
All in all, I think you responded kind of crudely to my comments, misreading my uncertainty.

Like I say, apologise for recommending folks don't read my review and retract your CIA smear and then we'll talk about who's being "crude".

Quote:
Your review is too laudatory of a book which throws together a lot of stuff, not very well written, and half digested.

Sorry, but the burden of proof is on you to argue your points in a less "thrown together", better written, better digested fashion then. You haven't done that, not even by half.

Quote:
But I do think Uzcategui's general point, that the 'revolution' is very limited, and tightly controlled is worth serious reflection.

That is not at all Uzcátegui's point. Rather, his point is that there has been no revolution - that Chávez' policies neither revolutionary nor socialist, and that they don't represent a rupture with what came before - and that in its place the political class have colluded to create the simulacra of a revolution, a hook around which all Venezuelan political discourse is snagged. This is a mystification, a deception, something which serves to further distance the sceptre of an emancipated Venezuela.

jonthom
May 16 2012 15:50

Is there anything in particular you'd recommend/criticise?

Incidentally, I've really appreciated your posts on here re: Venezuela; most of what I encounter from friends falls into either Chavez-as-messiah or Chavez-as-Hitler territory, getting another perspective on it has been very helpful.

Caiman del Barrio
May 16 2012 16:02
jonthom wrote:
Is there anything in particular you'd recommend/criticise?

Well the god honest truth is that i was supposed to trasnalte 1/3 of it but got halfway in and foudn myself swamped with various things going on in my life so had to give up. Lemme go back through it & and get back to you.

Quote:
Incidentally, I've really appreciated your posts on here re: Venezuela; most of what I encounter from friends falls into either Chavez-as-messiah or Chavez-as-Hitler territory, getting another perspective on it has been very helpful.

Thanks, I've kidna stopped covering Venezuela/Latin America since I've been in the UK for the last 18 months or so and have loads goign on. I'll still irregularly blog on regional issues as & when I have time though, and I'm (briefly) heading back to the continent next year. smile

jdoggg
May 16 2012 16:48

Thanks for such a thorough response. I suspect we agree on much more than you think. I really am very sorry if I appeared to be slandering Uzcategui. It really isn't surprising to me that others have had the same suspicions about Uzcategui's book, but even my original post dismissed those suspicions as paranoid.

Also I did indicate my doubts about the term "revolution" as applied to Chavez's regime. Anyone traveling from Caracas to Miami meets quantities of filthy rich, hysterically right wing Venezuelans off to Miami for a weekend of shopping and carousing.

Concerning El Amparo, I do think you need to be very clear that Chavez is not suspected of massacres. Around here, the public thinks Venezuela has a murderous dictatorship and Columbia has a democracy characterized by freedom. He is being accused of not cleaning house in the military. He fears (to some extent, but just how much?) alienating military support. It kind of reminds me of the American architects of genocide in Central America, still in honored positions, but no longer organizing death squads.

What do you think of Gregory Wilpert, his book, his website? Don't you think that, despite the current limits of Chavez's regime, the regime could develop? After all, Chavez really must sell oil. And selling oil requires participation in the world economy. He is only free to spend the oil money. Restructuring the basis of the economy is a much taller order.

The Stalin/Trotsky comparison has limits. It was merely an analogy.

I do think the US is interested in manipulating its own left, not just in squashing it. Tibet, for instance, is an issue which is dear to parts of the left, conveniently so for the State Department.

Let me tell you an experience I had when I returned from Venezuela. I wanted to hear speakers or whatever on Venezuela related issues and I found a campus in Ohio talking up a dialogue with Venezuelan students. I looked it up and found that the State Department (Hilary) was sponsoring a tour of opposition students. I e-mailed Eva Gollinger and she wrote about it on Wilpert's site.

A couple of things inadequately addressed by Uzcategui. If Chavez represents business more or less as usual, there is an awful lot of sound and fury about nothing. Why? And, what about Chavez's foreign policy? His defense of Qaddafi, etc.?