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Thatcher is Dead—Long Live Chávez!

by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER

Mother: O my son … an evil and pernicious death.

Rebel: Mother, a verdant and sumptuous death.

Mother: From too much hate.

Rebel: From too much love.

                                                – Aimé Césaire

Two deaths with diametrically opposite meanings, evident from the immediate responses they provoked. One was greeted by millions of mourners packing the streets of Caracas, waiting for days to catch a glimpse of their departed leader. The other prompted spontaneous street parties in Brixton and Glasgow and a barrage of comical send-ups about the impending privatization of hell. But while revelers gathered spontaneously to celebrate the physical death of the Iron Lady of neoliberalism, Margaret Thatcher, voters in Venezuela are heading to the polls to drive nails into her coffin and bury her legacy by electing a revolutionary successor to Hugo Chávez.

“Children of 1989”

The Fourth World War started in Venezuela, and it was a war against Thatcher and her ilk. In February of 1989, Ronald Reagan had only recently handed the baton over to George H.W. Bush, and Thatcher was gearing up to impose the Poll Tax, which would see epic riots in Trafalgar Square the following year. Meanwhile in Venezuela, a seemingly different sort of government was taking power with a surprisingly similar outlook. Centrist social democrat Carlos Andrés Pérez had been elected on an anti-neoliberal platform that promised debtor-nation resistance and derided the IMF as a “bomb that only kills people.”

Once in power, however, the bait was switched and Pérez did an abrupt about face, instituting the neoliberal Washington Consensus to the letter: sweeping privatization and deregulation and the certainty that, for the poorest at least, things were about to get much worse. But while the populations of the United States and Britain were busily swallowing the bitter pill of neoliberalism under the illusion that there was no alternative, poor Venezuelans unexpectedly spat it back out and set about burning and looting to make the impossible suddenly possible.

In what was deemed the “Caracazo,” mass popular rebellion in the streets smashed in an instant the deceptive myth of Venezuelan exceptionalism and its illusory stability. It destroyed the prevailing system of corrupt two-party democracy and tossed forth Hugo Chávez himself as a political crystallization of demands unmet and aspirations unrealized. As graffiti in Caracas puts it: “We are children of 1989 in revolution.”

Slandering the Dead

But Chávez is gone and the war against neoliberalism continues. If Chávez was rarely respected by the foreign press in life – indeed, here was a figure about whom literally anything could be said, written, and published – why would we expect anything different in death? Thus alongside the popular ebullitions of grief over Chávez and joy over Thatcher, there were the reactions to the deaths of Chávez and Thatcher in the nominally progressive Guardian.

Whereas the paper’s obituary for Thatcher was polite to a fault, that pinnacle of absurdity that is Rory Carroll had only one month earlier granted a veneer of respectability to those who would bid the late Venezuelan President “good riddance.” Carroll is still evidently smarting from the day that Chávez himself subjected the journalist to a stinging history lesson. Despite the fact that he tells this story constantly, however, he can’t seem to remember what actually happened.

The bastion of U.S. liberalism that is The New Yorker has hardly fared better. Staff writer and apparent bully Jon Lee Anderson has found himself embroiled in a scandal that, while ostensibly about fact-checking, was in reality something far worse. The New Yorker eventually corrected two of Anderson’s more straightforward errors, in which he erroneously claimed that Venezuela led Latin America in homicides, and his utterly baffling suggestion that Chávez came to power in a coup rather than an election. But there is little recourse to be had regarding Anderson’s most rhetorically slippery phrases, much less his overarching narrative in which Venezuela’s poor are “victims of their affection” for Chávez.

After all, when it comes to the late Comandante, no holds are barred.

If Chávez was and continues to be roundly slandered in the press, however, we can take some consolation in the fact that most Venezuelans simply don’t believe the hype. All reputable polls suggest that right-wing opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski will be roundly defeated on Sunday by Chávez’s preferred candidate, the former bus driver and union leader Nicolás Maduro. Such decisive poll numbers, however, are but a reflection of the deep contradictions within anti-Chavista forces over strategy and program.

The Anti-Chavista Double-Bind

In fact, in light of such a certain defeat, much opposition posturing is little more than a performance for a foreign audience. Case in point: the opposition MUD coalition recently called a press conference to denounce purported irregularities in the electoral system, notably that: “a PSUV [United Socialist Party] member, was in possession of the password for the start-up and log-in and log-out of the machines.” But when pushed on the importance of this claim, the MUD’s Executive Secretary Ramón Aveledo conceded that the password “does not put the voting system at risk, it’s true, it does not put the electoral software at risk, nor the identification of voters, nor the vote count, nor the transmission of the results.”

What to make of this entire spectacle? If the goal was to discredit the electoral system, surely this task could have been accomplished less clumsily. The reality, however, is that these contradictory claims point to the contradiction that is the opposition itself. Not a majority, it cannot win elections, and unable to win elections, it is constantly tempted to abstain rather than competing in them.

It was this double-bind that led to the utterly hubristic coup against Chávez exactly eleven years ago today, which was reversed within 47 hours by the same masses that coup planners had so thoroughly underestimated. By attempting a coup, the opposition effectively handed the mantle of democratic legitimacy to the Chávez government, and many anti-Chavistas have spent years attempting to shed the label of golpistas, coup-mongers, with only limited success. Since Chávez wiped the floor with Manuel Rosales in 2006, the majority of the opposition has accepted the results of elections, casting their lot in with the ballot only because the bullet had failed so miserably.

Simply choosing to contest elections, however, did not solve the challenge of electability, and while attempting to silence the abstentionists in their ranks, the anti-Chavistas have simultaneously sought to move toward the center, in words at least. Thus Capriles and others have painted themselves as social democrats by suggesting that they would not abolish, but merely improve popular social programs like the Bolivarian Missions. This claim does not square, incidentally, with the reality of Miranda State, where as governor Capriles promptly assailed the Missions, especially the controversial Cuban-staffed health centers of Mission Barrio Adentro.

Nor did it help when Capriles supporters recently occupied and vandalized an apartment building being constructed to house the poorest Venezuelans through Misión Vivenda. Those who for so long have denounced as “invaders” homeless Venezuelans who occupied an empty building or an idle patch of land now reveled in invading a government project to house the poor. And while Capriles has avoided criticizing Chávez directly, instead assailing Maduro for not living up to the deceased leader’s example, it has not helped that some of his supporters daubed graffiti reading “long live cancer.”

And nor has Capriles, elite scion whose very surname attests to extraordinary wealth, had an easy time shedding the taint of the past. It didn’t help when, in the run-up to the election of October 2012, a document was leaked claiming to delineate the “Plan of Government” for a hypothetical Capriles administration. While denounced by some as a forgery, this plan was exactly what many would expect from Capriles: a return to the very same neoliberal savagery that sparked the Caracazo.

The past does not so easily become past.

Thatcher’s Shock Troops

But how mixed is the opposition’s message in reality? Perhaps it is too generous to take Capriles at his word. After all, Capriles must himself see the contradiction: if he critiques the electoral system as unfair, he discourages his own voters from participating, but if he encourages them to participate, he delivers them into the hands of defeat. While it is certainly fitting revenge that this election falls on the anniversary of Chávez’s triumphant return, we should never let triumphalism blind us to the persistent vultures that circle Venezuela’s socialist democracy. Amid a backdrop of domestic and international chatter seeking to discredit the democratic credentials of the Venezuelan electoral system, sectors of the Venezuelan opposition have begun to maneuver in ways that suggest something else might be afoot.

On Monday night, an encampment of hunger strikers from the far-right organization Active Youth for a United Venezuela (JAVU) were allegedly attacked by red-shirted assailants on motorcycles, to all appearances Chavistas. Some immediately wondered what Chavistas would gain from an attack so close to elections, and why the opposition-controlled Chacao police did not intervene. As it turned out, Chavistas from Chacao were indeed present, but insist that they themselves were attached by JAVU, effectively answering the question of why the police did not stop the attack: why intervene when your side is on the offensive?

Such an attack would not be out of character for JAVU, which while affirming the strategic nonviolence of organizations like the Albert Einstein Institution, has nevertheless been more than willing to engage in violence in the past (as has its parent organization, the admittedly violent Miami-based exile group, Orvex). JAVU has since been linked to violently provocative attacks across the country, from assaults on Chavistas in Mérida to an attempt to set the Miranda Legislative Council on fire. In Mérida, a smartphone was found containing JAVU’s manual for the coming days: they have no plans to recognize the electoral results and will instead “take the streets by any means.”

On Wednesday, even more troubling news emerged. First, Capriles publicly refused to sign a letter agreeing to respect the outcome of the election, insisting instead that he would respect that most flexible of categories: the “popular will.” Given that Capriles had indeed signed a similar letter prior to the October 2012 election, we should wonder what has changed aside from opposition strategy. This worrying refusal was immediately compounded by the release of a recorded phone call from Capriles’ own personal bodyguard, insisting that the opposition candidate will not recognize defeat (while incidentally revealing the bodyguard’s own delusional belief that Capriles would be the real winner).

Indeed, everything points to a possible post-election attempt to overthrow a newly elected Maduro administration. Another leaked phone recording suggests that Salvadorean mercenaries with ties to death squads are currently in Venezuela and planning to disrupt the election, possibly with ties to Capriles himself. Seventeen people have been arrested for allegedly sabotaging the electrical grid and causing blackouts. When considered against a backdrop in which the Obama administration has cast doubt on whether the election would be “clean and transparent,” such signs are troubling to say the least.

Post-Neoliberal Dawn

Frantz Fanon once argued, somewhat notoriously, that “For the colonized, life can only spring from the rotting cadaver of the colonist.” To celebrate an enemy’s death by necessity carries within it, however negatively, a positive political program, and those who took to the streets to spontaneously celebrate Thatcher’s demise were invariably firing shots at neoliberalism itself.

But unfortunately for those gathered in Brixton, neoliberalism and its ideological partner, austerity, are today on the offensive in Britain and much of the global core. In no way does Thatcher’s death mark the destruction or even decline of her ideological legacy, and in this sense the celebrations are as catharthic as they are premature. It is across the globe that the greatest strides have been made to destroy Thatcher’s legacy in the intransigent insistence that there is, in fact, an alternative to neoliberalism.

As I argue in We Created Chávez, far less interesting than Chávez the man are the decades of revolutionary struggle that preceded him, crystallizing around Chávez as a symbol of and a mechanism for driving forward the struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism. Even in life, Chávez was far more than the sum of his acts, he was a vessel into which the popular sectors of Venezuela deposited their post-neoliberal aspirations. But the vessel’s shape was soon determined by its content, as Chávez became a socialist battering ram propelled by forces he did not himself control. To paraphrase C.L.R. James’ description of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Chávez did not make the revolution, the revolution made Chávez.

The Bolivarian Revolution has lost something powerfully important in this individual that was Hugo Chávez, but perhaps it is better that he departed us physically amid the upswing of the historic movement he embodied, and to which he can still lend his image to press forward the momentum of the struggle. This certainly seems preferable to death amid the decadence of a flailing system, the death of Thatcher, out of whose rotting corpse the post-neoliberal world must invariably bloom.

George Ciccariello-Maher, teaches political theory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, May 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.

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