From 16-22 November, Caracas-based anarchist newspaper El Libertario hosted the first ever Libertarian Bookfair of its kind in Venezuela. Below is something of an evaluation of the week, plus some analysis of the political spectrum inside the country.
The event - which coincided with the state-organised Bookfair but five stops away on the Caracas Metro - was small in its size and modest in its ambitions, but at times inspiring and motivating. The simultaneity of the two bookfairs warranted a comparative article on the website of BBC Mundo (the BBC's Spanish language service), which represented great exposure. (Quite how the reporter decided that Nelson was the "owner" of El Libertario is beyond me though). Moreover, the Fair's location (until the weekend at least) on the campus of Universidad Central de Venezuela - Venezuela's big public university - was a tactical coup. In a state with a weak, unbalanced sense of bourgeois democracy and only a marginal commitment to freedom of expression, anarchists and fellow travellers have to take even more precautions than in other places. La Central, with a politicised student body and faculty members, who consider their "autónomo" status (a standard of many public universities in Latin countries which enshrines in law that the police and military can only step on campus in the event of being expressly invited by the university rector) to be just one part of their commitment to political independence. Previously, El Libertario members have received harassment in public from chavistas and antichavistas alike, so security had to be paramount here.
Of course, the very convocation of an anarchist bookfair in the first place represents something of a high point for Venezuelan revolutionary struggle. Unlike Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and some of the other more affluent Latin American countries, Venezuela has practically no anarchist history at all. The publication of the first ever El Libertario in 1995 represented one of the very first expressions of libertarian thought in the country's history, while the attempt to create a national anarchist federation (the CRA - Comisión de Relaciones Anarquistas") a few years ago ultimately resulted in failure due to the tiny size of the scene. Members of the Caracas collective had organised a similar dissenting event to the World Social Forum - hosted by Chávez in Caracas in 2006 - in which around 60-70 individuals crammed themselves into the space the collective share with a sympathetic photographer near the city centre, but the Bookfair was much larger in scope.
Throughout the week, discussions revolved around the basics of anarchist thought and its application to contemporary national political discourse (the issue of opposing chavista attacks on working and living conditions while not becoming incorporated into the pro-business, right-wing opposition being a running theme), the plight of refugees in the region, and the role of women in a revolutionary movement, amongst other subjects. Lunchtime workshops were also held on photography, human rights and using the internet as a militant's tool. In the afternoons, films with revolutionary content were shown, and these were popular with many attendees, although the tight nature of the schedule prevented much discussion about the issues the movies raised. All this, of course, against the backdrop of a smattering of stalls offering a broad variety of literature in the Spanish language, with publications from groups throughout the Americas and Spain (and even a few Resistances and Direct Actions!).
Unfortunately, illness and work commitments prevented me from attending many of the activities throughout the seven days, but I did manage to catch a presentation by the folk from the Victims' Committee Against Impunity (CVCI) in Lara state on Saturday. After watching a documentary that the group had made on the labourious process of making official complaints ("denuncias") in response to police homicides (a figure which runs at over 7,000 in that state alone for this decade), and the risks of making such "denuncias" in a region in which the drugs and arms trade are run by Mafiosi cabals of police and politicians (with prominent activists being followed by unmarked cars and armed men), we were shocked and devastated to discover five days later that a 24 year old cameraman with the organisation had been assassinated by unidentified gunmen outside his house. In the face of such a rapacious orgy of murder, the CVCI needs solidarity in its attempts to counter the police's activities in their communities, with an eye to establishing alternative, neighbourhood-based security initiatives.
Following the thoroughly harrowing meeting with the CVCI, a number of dreadlocked, be-capped, baggy-trousered oiks showed up with Coke bottles full of alcohol and proceeded to serenade the hereby gathered with a raucous and somewhat chaotic session of socially conscious hip hop. Although - as throughout the week - their audience was low and largely pretty unresponsive, I was impressed by the relaxed atmosphere during their various sets (over here, hip hop is associated with the "malandro" - criminal - subculture and many shows are broken up by gunfights), as well as the high level of political understanding many of the MCs demonstrated. One kid - drunk off his ass and with his shiny Adidas trousers around his knees - caused me to raise my eyebrows when he namechecked Kropotkin, while another tune deconstructed the facets of state capitalism with a precision that many British Politics students would find testing.
Of course, all events are only as worthwhile as the subsequent activity they inspire, and, at times, the low concentration of interested parties seemed problematic. It is definitely true that the near-non-functional status of Caracas transportation - and the de facto after dark curfew imposed by its astronomically high crime rate - impede any sort of independent political activity. The weekend venue for the Bookfair was only seven blocks from a Metro station, but it's unsafe to walk alone at night in many areas and most folk in the city start to worry about getting home after 7pm (even on weekends).
An even bigger obstacle though, is the somewhat primitive nature of mainstream Venezuelan politics in comparison to the norms of First World discourse. The binary between chavismo and antichavismo is well-documented and at times, it seems almost all-encompassing. El Libertario have acknowledged how the fluidity of "el proceso" is its greatest strength, managing to harangue community activists, patriots, yankee-bashers and leftists into its forces and isolating those who advocate radical social change. The right wing opposition - bank-rolled by big business and the tiny elite - struggles to match Chávez' populism, but a popular base is coalescing around those who note the disparities between the wild prognoses of the regime for Venezuelan quality of life and reality, helped by the insidious ubiquity of cable TV and consumerist culture. Existing outside of these intensely magnetic poles has always been difficult, although new spaces are emerging, as much as a result of conflicts within "el proceso" itself as anything else.
Rather disappointingly, what - to my mind at least - was the most interesting talk at the Bookfair, on the slow development of an independent union movement to the left of Chávez, was cancelled at the last minute by its union leader speaker, a Trotskyist. No proper reason was given, although many of the assembled murmured disparagingly about the rather contradictory line much of the Trotsykist movement takes on chavismo, and the unpopularity of El Libertario's resolve in its opposition to the regime. Examples do exist of struggles exploiting the space Chávez is leaving to the left, such as the Sidor steelworkers and in the Sierra de Perijá, Zulia state, where indigenous people are battling against government efforts to extract coal in their communities. An opportunity was also missed at the Bookfair, when struggling university maintenance workers (who have been striking and blocking vehicular access to the campus one day a week since I moved here) were not engaged with, with priority being given to considering how their actions might affect Bookfair attendance. In fairness, I am unaware of the details of this struggle, and whether the workers are chavista, antichavista or independent (I was ill on the day they were out), but in future, such opportunities to engage with militant, angry workers must not be missed.
With a rising ride of social movements nationally, chavismo has acted fast. El Libertario estimates that some 2,000 individuals face criminal proceedings of one kind or another for their involvement in social movements. And in the absence of an entrenched Venezuelan civil society (El Libertario note that such a body only really came into existence following the "caracazo" uprising and subsequent massacre of 1989), revolutionary movements have been pushed into making demands for "human rights" around protest. This was notable at the Bookfair, where approximately one third of the stalls had human rights content, and free posters were distributed claiming that "PROTESTING IS A RIGHT, NOT AN OFFENCE". I was also passed a DVD documentary made by collective members in conjunction with the Provea human rights group about the Amparo massacre, the year before the "caracazo", in which the army killed 14 fishermen suspected of being guerrillas.
The occupation of territory usually better designated for liberal reformists by so called anarchists could be said to be problematic, but thus far, I have seen it facilitate the flow of information and maintenance of links with the nation's many, fragmented social movements, a tall order in a country where the mainstream media is dominated by the pro-business, anti-worker prerogative of both sides of Venezuela's false polarisation. We'll see how this one pans out as I become more acquainted with it.
If one third of the Bookfair’s space was given over to human rights materials, then a second third was dedicated to punk-related merchandise, including fanzines, CDs, badges and patches. This is a bigger issue, in my opinion, and I'm speaking as someone who still loosely identifies with punk rock culture. Indeed, a cursory glance at active "libertarios" would denote a very strong punk demographic, with all the contradictions that that entails. The issues between punk rock and anarchism are now enshrined in Libcom orthodoxy - and rightly so, from personal experience - yet I find myself making the same arguments again (this time in Spanish, and in a Discharge shirt).
As a result of the Bookfair and the handful of individual who registered a definite interest in Caracas' anarchist movement, the meetings of the editorial collective have been regularised and opened up to discussion outside of the remit of the newspaper itself. This is positive, yet it is early days and the group as a whole lack confidence. The sceptre of punk rock culture must also be exorcised more emphatically from the anarchist scene, since many of the supposed 'allies' of the newspaper (self-proclaimed "anarcho punks") failed to attend the Bookfair, despite having organised usage of the space for their own event two weeks later (a "Do It Yourself" weekender, for individuals who are "distancing themselves from the conception of 'waiting for times to change for the better'" in favour of "changing ourselves in the here and now", which apparently equates to workshops on DIY tattoos and "punk hairdressing"!). The group has also been criticised for being too synthesist, but I think this is more of a reflection on youthful and inexperienced nature of Venezuelan anarchism as a whole.
Encouragingly, as well as agreeing to schedule a series of public meetings on campus about anarchism, the group has also undertaken to hold internal discussion forums, in which members will have a chance to elaborate their own visions and hammer out our differences . In the meantime, the possibilities for a revolutionary alternative to chavismo - encouraged by increased desertion of bolivarianismo by members of its original rank and file - will continue to motivate the publication and distribution of El Libertario.