It may seem like an age ago now in the midst of all the subsequent economic tumult over here, but I wanted to write about Chávez’ recent rhetorical excursion at the emergency Climate Change summit in Copenhagen last month.
Never the one to spare any expense or effort on PR, the Venezuelan President first managed to address a group of Danish leftists through a translator (a somewhat ad hoc exercise in rabble-rousing which turned into a succession of "Vivas!" for his anti-imperialist allies, with Iran a curious omission). His alloted podium time was a lambast of “the Empire” (think less Negri, more Mugabe), in which El Presidente pointed the finger of blame for the planet’s ills squarely at capitalism. “If the climate were a bank, it would have been saved by now,” he quipped, leaving me wondering if his cable is good enough to pick up the BBC’s coverage of the recent Climate Camps in the UK. Marina Pepper and her co-authors of the “you can’t bail out nature” slogan should take legal advice.
Of course, that someone showed up to the farcical Copenhagen media setpiece - in which everyone was planning ways to pass the buck and exonerate themselves - and highlighted the link between climate change and capitalism, has a certain amount of schadenfraude to it (I wonder how many of the protestors outside would have advocated capitalism’s overthrow in order to save the planet?). However, as I listened to his speech in a speeding taxi, watching the driver wolf down an empanada and a sugary coffee before chucking the plastic utensils out of the window though which that familiar, humid shit-and-vomit stench rushes, only for a rabid dog – which the driver dodges (this time, at least) – to sniff at it, I found Chávez’ sudden moralism on the subject of the environment a little hard to swallow.
Quite apart from the fact that we were being lectured on environmental policy by the President of a world-leading oil producer, Chávez’ hectoring of the “northern hemisphere powers” served as a convenient distraction from the backwards nature of Venezuelan ecological reform. I have previously blogged about the rubbish collection (or lack thereof) in the barrio I used to live in. To be fair, outside of the ranchos, most parts of Caracas have some sort of rubbish collection, but recycling is literally non-existent, as far as I can see, anyway. I’m used to throwing beer bottles in the same bags as tissues and paper in bar jobs, but it’s been a long time since I’ve done it at home.
On the Caracas Metro, signs and announcements will encourage users to be economical with their water and electricity usage out of good faith alone (the ideological void at the centre of chavismo seems to be being filled by the sense of a “citizen’s duty” to be conscious and respectful of his neighbours), but friends of mine will leave all the lights on in the house when they go out in order to dissuade would be burglars, or - more abstractly – ghosts. Moreover, the so called “mentalidad petrolera” - in which generations of politicians have promised infinite abundance while the oily dollars never really leave their fists - has created a people with expectations of a high standard of living relative to their means, and a sometimes glaring lack of resourcefulness, especially in these times of crisis and austerity. Almost everyone has a TV in their bedroom, even in the barrio, plus a fan in every room, or air conditioning if you’re rich. Venezuela is not about to become a nation of environmental voluntarists.
Of course, this is of little importance. Recession or not, and indeed, with or without authoritarian environmental policing from on high, Venezuela would still be wracked by severe ecological problems. Recent rainy seasons have been anything but, leading to serious water shortages (examined in more detail in the post I link to above), which has also affected the HEP dams on which the Republic is dependant for its power - hence electricity rationing. And even without a water shortage, we’d still be struggling: water pipes are grossly under-maintained, with state plumbers often steering clear of piping erected illegitimately by barrio residents, while a promise of 29 processing plants - meant to service the nation - has so far produced three (of which, none are working at full capacity).
Moreover, who is Chávez to criticise capitalist thirst for profit at the environment’s expense? I wonder if the residents of the Sierra de Perijá, in the western state of Zulia on the border with Colombia, listened to his hypocritical proclamations. In a tale that is all too familiar for any acquaintance of Latin American politics, the region has become a battlefield, between indigenous peoples and prospectors, loggers and, most recently, coal miners. Of course, the mining company – Corpozulia - is state-run and promoted by Chávez as part of his nationalistic, ‘socialist’ economic programme. The mines produce a carcinogenic soot which contaminates nearby communities and it is possibly primarily for that reason – as well as more general themes of land and heritage – that they are hugely unpopular. However, the manipulations of Corpozulia and the local bourgeoisie have gained them the support of a minority of folk from the local indigenous population (a mixture of Yupka, Wayuu and Barí peoples) and therefore, the government has been able to depict it as an internal dispute between ‘indios’.
Things reached a head with the death of an old Yupka man at the hands of suspected paramilitaries, while prominent local activists against the mines have also been physically attacked. Under the cover of restoring law and order, military and police elements have taken advantage of every clash to reclaim control of the rebellious indigenous villages, blocking their access and communication with supporters on the outside. In October, a local community leader - Sabino Romero - sought treatment following a particularly vicious attack and found himself isolated in a military hospital. Meanwhile, the coal mining continues.
Events in Sierra de Perijá are just one example of capitalist extraction taking priority over environmental and humanitarian concerns, sometimes even voiced by groups who would previously have considered themselves under the ever-narrowing chavista umbrella. Under the banner of developmentalism, Chávez has orientated the Venezuelan economy towards national and continental capital, leading to the country’s incorporation in programmes such as the IIRSA (the Infrastructural Integration for the South American Region), which promotes the construction of high-profile projects in order to further conflate South American capital with the international economy. Profit here is just as central to everyday existence as in Colombia or even the land of the hated yanqui, and it is for this reason that this particular patch of our beautiful planet that Chávez jealously guards as his own finds itself experiencing the same narratives as anywhere else.