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.