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I left the U.S. for Venezuela two days after the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) held a national vote for candidates in which nearly three million militants participated. In a country of roughly 26 million, three million militants in any party is a significant showing, especially if one considers that the party has 6 million members and many of the most militant revolutionaries of the country prefer to remain outside of the party structure. Many find it puzzling that the Socialist Spanish government maintains what might be described as icy relations with Socialists of Venezuela. According to a recent poll in Spain, as reported on May 30 by UPI, “The survey of 2,500 Spaniards in 2007 found the leftist Chavez ranks first among major world leaders the Spanish do not care for, ahead of the U.S. president and Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro.”
I had a chance to reflect on this curious situation en route to Venezuela when, on a twelve hour lay over, I left the moderately warm, air-conditioned Miami airport for the steamy outdoors and waited for a ride to my hotel room. When the shuttle arrived, I boarded with two other men, who turned out to be Spaniards, deeply engaged in a conversation about Latin America. The younger man, perhaps twenty years younger than I, was coming from Brazil and the elder man, perhaps fifteen years my senior, although he looked twenty years older, was coming from Nicaragua. During a brief lull in the conversation I asked the elder man, in Spanish, how things were going in Nicaragua. He glanced down his nose at me to size me up and, in that moment, I don’t think he noticed the image of Sandino on my t-shirt. “Very well,” he replied, in his native tongue,” especially since no one suffers hunger any more.”
“Oh really?” I asked, incredulously, “I didn’t think Nicaragua had ever been free of hunger.”
No really, the man insisted, things were great in Nicaragua. I nodded. “It’s not like in Venezuela with that pinche Chavez, who’s ruined his country.”
While not overly eager to attack Daniel Ortega, even while I’m never hesitant to hide my disgust for the former revolutionary-turned-pro-life-neoliberal, I couldn’t let this pass.
“I suppose that’s a matter of opinion,” I said. Both men glared at me. I think the younger man now noticed my t-shirt. The elder man’s face turned slightly red.
“No. It’s not a matter of opinion. I’ve had two friends whose businesses were ruined by that Chávez. His policies are ruining the country.”
“I suppose there are winners and losers in every process, and most of my friends who are at the bottom seem better off,” I said.
The old man continued for a few minutes as the shuttle made its way to the airport and then, as I ceased to respond, the old man turned his attention back to the young man and began talking about what good things Lula had done for Brazil.
“It’s all about education, preparation of the people. With an apolitical education. That’s the problem. Like in Venezuela, where the education is all politicized,” the old man said. The young man readily agreed.
I thought of pointing out that all education is politicized; that what these two dinosaurs of the Spanish Empire seemed to find objectionable would be the education that enables students to see that their neoliberal agendas only work for the empire, be it Spanish or U.S.; I considered pointing out that the neoliberal “left” of Spain might be better off moving into the twenty-first century and reexamining its admiration for Daniel Ortega, who former Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal called a “dictator,” the repentant revolutionary, now neoliberal president heading a party (Sandinista) which recently criminalized abortion and cut a deal with the corrupt Arnoldo Alemán of the Liberal Party so as to return to power in Nicaragua. But instead I just let it go, dropped out of the conversation and slid inconspicuously back into my seat.
As the two Spaniards continued their conversation, I mused on the UPI story once again, mystified by how a supposedly “left” government in Spain, and people who support it, could be so anti-Chavista. But after visiting Spain in 2006 and touring the three main cities of the Basque country, a few of the smaller towns and witnessing how the “progressive” Zapatero government treated the Basques who lived in a terror reminiscent of Central America in the 1980s, I came to believe that “progressive” doesn’t always imply “anti-imperialist.”
I remember clearly that morning in the Basque city of Vitoria, when I got into a conversation in the main library with the very kind librarian, working solo at the main desk. He whispered, as he looked around him to make sure no one was listening, about the measures the Spanish government had taken to repress any discussion about Basque independence. When I mentioned that I’d like to interview someone in Batasuna, he shook his head, his eyes filled with alarm. “It’s illegal to meet with Batasuna party members. You can be imprisoned even for being in the same room with them, if you know they’re Batasuna,” he told me. Batasuna is the peaceful wing of the Basque independence movement, but it, too was, and is, outlawed under Zapatero’s government.
Someone at Askapena, a Basque solidarity organization which defends imprisoned independentistas, explained it this way: “When the Spanish police pick you up on suspicion of being an independentista, they torture you. That’s routine and universal. After they torture you, if you denounce the torture, you are, de facto, part of ETA (the illegal armed wing of the Basque independence movement) because ETA has a policy of denouncing all torture. And, according to the Spanish legal system, anyone who advocates any ETA policy is de facto a member of ETA. And so there are people imprisoned in Spain as ETA “terrorists” simply because they were picked up, tortured and denounced the torture.”
I thought this imperial “zero tolerance” for dissent from the subjects of Spain, specifically, from the Basques, might explain the widespread hatred for Chavez in that country. Perhaps he’s seen as a “difficult child” by the Spanish government, one who talks back at the King when told to shut up. But Marc Villá, the Venezuelan documentary filmmaker, had another take on the situation.
“During the Franco dictatorship, the Acción Democrática (AD) supported the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE),” he explained to me one afternoon as we drove around Barinas last summer. The AD, for all practical purposes, a now-defunct political party which ruled Venezuela for fifty years, trading power from election to election with the Christian Democrat COPEI (also now practically defunct). AD was, and is, a member of the Socialist International and it was one of the few “socialist” parties the U.S. tolerated in Latin America through those Cold War years, perhaps because it bore very little resemblance to socialism – much like the PSOE and most European “socialist” parties today. Nevertheless, AD threw money at the arts and subverted leftist intellectuals in Venezuela and the world with generous gifts and grants handed out freely to the likes of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the PSOE.
“The PSOE incurred a great moral debt to Venezuela’s AD which it continues to pay off to this day in its media as it continues to look for any opportunity to slam Chavez and align itself with the AD, now in the U.S. backed Venezuelan opposition. Really, the Spaniards know very little of what’s happening here but they’re like so many Venezuelan “leftists” who oppose Chavez and the Bolivarian Process: they’ve lost out and a new left has come to power. People like Teodoro Petkoff (editor of the weekly newspaper, Tal Cual) and others, who were communists or socialists and who actually benefited under the AD governments and were left alone under the COPEI governments, no longer have the prestige and positions they once had under the AD. And they can’t stand it.”
The old “New Left” that limped through the collapse of the USSR and watched China gleefully celebrate an eternal capitalist Christmas even while guided by the Chinese Communist Party, seems to continue its life in the geriatric arms of the PSOE and the European neoliberal left. It may even find life in the neoliberal liberalism of Obama in the U.S. (unless it finds its backbone and, indeed, becomes a “left”), but Venezuela is continuing to define itself along new lines, directly challenging capitalism and experimenting with new models of socialism. Chávez and his in-your-face anti-imperialism, no matter what Spaniards may think, continues to be a household name in a world that can’t quite remember who Zapatero is or what, if anything, he stands for. Perhaps that’s what the Spaniards in my shuttle hated the most about “politicized education.”
CLIFTON ROSS is the writer and director of “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out,” a feature-length documentary now available from PM Press (www.pmpress.org). He’s currently working on a book and a new documentary in Venezuela. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org