As President Hugo Chávez beats the war drum with Colombia over the presence of US military bases near the Venezuelan border, violent crime and scarcity in the República Bolivariana continue to soar to almost bewildering levels.
”Therefore, señores and señoras, my military comrades, let’s not waste one day in the completion of our primary mission: preparing ourselves for war.”
Hugo Chávez, ”İAló, Presidente!”, 09/11/2009
So you’re saying that….as well preparing myself for the water and power going, as well as preparing myself in case I get attacked by some gangsters round here, as well as preparing myself psychologically to suffer general inefficiency and to be mistreated, humiliated and sent on wild goose chases every time I deal with officialdom and any governmental institution, or alternatively private companies like, I don’t know…the damn bank! As well as preparing myself physically and emotionally in order to confront the traffic and chaos of Caracas, the over-crowded and over-heated Metro or chasing a bus in order to ride hanging out of the doorway, as well as preparing myself for long queues everywhere…as well as preparing myself to not have a heart attack every time I have to pay for anything or go in the supermarket…
Now…I also have to prepare myself for war?
Don’t fucking kid me!”
Cheryl Coello, Caracas-based writer and poet.
The narrative is all a little bit familiar. High inflation, rising unemployment, near universal despair over insecurity – especially in Caracas – and a week after the water rationing programme came into effect, leaving caraqueños (officially!) without running water 2 days a week (although in my flat it’s more like 4 days a week, more if you don’t count the trickle that occasionally arrives at the antisocial hours of 1-5am). And that’s not forgetting the electricity rationing programme, which has yet to be properly announced. Add on the choking, unremitting, paralysing traffic of the capital city, and you find a country that is bordering on the edge of dysfunction.
So, if you were a self-serving ruling class, what would you do if confronted with so many problems? Why, identify an external enemy and initiate a series of war games of course! The many references that Chávez et al make to Latin American history are clearly based in an accurate understanding of the survival techniques of his precursors, since this is classic caudillismo: leaning on that tired, creaking pillar of national unity in order to gloss over the ever-increasing burdens and indignities that the average Venezuelan has to suffer on a daily basis. General Galtieri would be proud.
A surprising statistic came out in the national newspapers this weekend. The 2010 state budget features real terms slashes to all those staple chavista programmes on which he has constructed almost 12 years of leadership; most notably in the areas of education (by 22.5%), social housing (19.5) and health (19%). The budget for internal security has also been cut (by a massive 63.7%) - which is possibly less of a concern, bearing in mind the unscrupulous, corrupt and coercive nature of the police and military at all levels. Fair enough, you might say, after all, we’re in the midst of a continuing economic crisis. However, the one sector which has escaped almost untarnished in the 2010 budget is – you guessed it – defence, hovering around the 6.5 million BsF mark.
These figures serve to demonstrate the priorities of chavismo for the next 12 months. While Venezuelans generally are at the end of their tether over the lack of safety (with many families instituting policies of not leaving the house past 6pm – 6pm!), the cut to the security budget must be interpreted as a public admission by Chávez that his regime is incapable of confronting the crime issue. Many police departments use their access to a pool of information on the nation’s citizens as a means of identifying subjects for that Latin American tradition of the secuestro expres (“express kidnap”, in which the most vulnerable member of a family considered to be more affluent than their neighbours is abducted by local cops and taken on a tour of cash machines, or worse, forced to make a call to his/her family with a ransom figure), while 'straight' cops are themselves at risk from the malandros (gangsters). Another shocking statistic is that Caracas has the dubious distinction of the highest homicide index in the world: around 1.5% of the capital’s residents will be murdered, often over a mobile phone, a watch, or even a drunken row over a girl. With around 70 homicides in the city every weekend, many caraqueños responded to Chávez’ war talk with the declaration that the nation was already in a state of civil war.
With the Venezuelan state effectively washing its hands of any pretence of attempting to protect its citizens, one website - set up by a bunch of students and based on precursors in Argentina, Brazil and other South American cities - represents a new, independent attempt to come to terms with national insecurity. Users can pinpoint the exact location of robberies, carjacking, homicides and – crucially – police corruption (amongst other assaults) on a Google Map of Venezuela. While the project risks being converted into propaganda for the even more repugnant rightwing oposición, its potential as a means of helping ordinary Venezuelan citizens in classifying and recording the true extent of the nation’s victim-based delinquency is unquestionable. Moreover, the geography-based nature of the website could be of assistance in identifying the physical boundaries between the nation’s organised crime enterprises and thusly undermine their hegemony.
Of course, such initiatives are no substitute for confronting the social causes of violent crime: wealth inequality, low expectations, the enormous gap between media and governmental representations of daily existence and the actual lifestyles of most Venezuelans (and I’m sure a sociologist/criminologist could list a million more, while we are all acutely aware of capitalism as its root cause). At the same time though, it represents a step forward from the fear-mongering and political manipulations of the gory, macabre tabloid newspapers (in which most headlines start with the words “mataron…” – “they killed…”, and a blood-soaked picture if you’re lucky) and the aloof, delusional pronouncements of the Bolivarian regime.
However, back to the phony war with Colombia for a moment. After watching Chávez’ grandstanding on Monday, I asked my flatmate whether Venezuela really had the stomach for a war. Despite the consolidation of the volunteer milicias bolivarianas (egged on by the rather unpleasant leftists at venezuelanalysis), we determined that surely not. A state of war would be one insult too many to the bending backbone of the hitherto largely stoical working class. Moreover, in the highly improbable event of Chávez’ wild prediction of an invasion of Venezuela coming true, what odds would one put on a victory for the drug-addled, inexperienced Venezuelan army against the Colombian forces (fresh from a series of victories against the FARC and supported financially and physically by the US army) on the battlefield? And what does history show us about the fate of Latin American caudillos following military defeat?
Far more likely is that Chávez is – once again - playing a dangerous game of political brinkmanship, fully aware that groups like the Organisation of American States will act first to ‘force’ a diplomatic resolution to the air force bases question. Lula – President of Brazil - has already volunteered himself as the mediator in talks between Chávez and Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian President. Any concessions Lula – an ally of bolivarianismo by all accounts – can gain for Venezuela will be trumpeted as a great victory for chavismo, cementing Hugo’s popularity once more before next year’s parliamentary elections. In the meantime, it serves as an opportune distraction from the decaying quality of life within the country itself.