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   Dispatch #3 from Venezuela


How's Chávez Doing?
Depends on Who's Talking

It is what Chávez represents, not what he does, that shapes people's opinions of him. The struggle in Venezuela is based on race as much as it is on class, and is as much a civil rights movement as the popular uprising that gripped the U.S. in the Sixties.

by Brad Carlton

"In the absence of information (and the presence, often, of disinformation) even the most apparently straightforward event takes on elusive shadows, like a fragment of retrieved legend."
                  —Joan Didion, Salvador

For backgrounding, read Dispatch #1 and Dispatch #2.

It's one thing to intellectually know that media entrusted with informing the public are misleading it. It's quite another to observe with naked eyes the truth they smother.

CARACAS, July 11— Morning brings inglorious nattering. Bad TV. Shrill headlines.

It is grey and misty outside—bad luck for the organizers of today's march, who hope to mass enough "civil society" bodies to rout Chávez from the presidency with their collective spleen.

This is what is on television:

  • A segment called "VA A MARCHAR?"—"Are you going to march?"—in which a roving reporter (she doesn't rove into the barrios, though) sticks her microphone into pedestrians' faces to ask them the burning question of the day.

  • A group of talking heads at a table in a segment called "Enfrenta," which is, I think, short for enfrentamiento, i.e., head-to-head confrontation, or debate. Except the heads don't debate, they only hype the march. Images of people gathering at the pre-march rally play behind the heads, intercut with footage of swollen crowds at previous anti-Chávez demonstrations. At the bottom of the screen are the words "Oppositores marchan a Miraflores"—"The opposition marches to Miraflores"—beneath which, in caps, one reads "PIDEN RENUNCIA AL PRESIDENTE."

  • An ad, broadcast every commercial break. In it, images of a surly Chávez and the pitiful faces of poor children are set against footage of seas of protestors and close-ups of their fraternal solidarity. Between video clips the screen flashes titles exhorting the viewer to come march for peace, for a Venezuela where all, rich and poor, are united. "Buscas un cambio este 11 de julio?"—"Do you want a change this July 11?" Then—after a last shot of brave marchers—the words: "Somos camino de liberdad"—"We are the path to freedom." All to the accompaniment of hemorrhaging strings.
These spots have been running round the clock at least since yesterday. (Just for kicks, try to imagine Bush's reaction if CNN ran this sort of thing every commercial break in the days before the anti-war/anti-Bush protests in DC last April.) I am later told that the stations broadcast the ads for free.

I have woken into a living Riefenstahl documentary, drained of all poetry. (Note: I am not comparing the opposition to Hitler. That would be silly. Instead I am comparing the opposition's propaganda machine with Hitler's, and the opposition suffers in the comparison.) Every second of airtime transmits to you, viewer, the authentic opportunity you have to join the big and exciting gathering just outside—or not. Will you become part of this news story—nay, this historic moment—or will you be left out? Va a marchar?

The papers today are much the same: media more concerned with constructing reality than reporting it. The lead in El Nacional reads "CTV espera que 1 millión de personas obliguen a Chávez a renunciar." The front page of Tal Cual blares, "Ni una Muerte Mas" ("Not One More Death"), referring, as if it were established fact, to the claim that Chávez is responsible for the deaths on April 11 (this is contradicted by eyewitness reports and dead and wounded chavista bodies) and will kill again if el pueblo venezolano permit him. And a headline in El Universal declares, "La marcha puede propiciar la renuncia de Chávez Frias"—"This march can trigger Chávez 's resignation." I am tempted to scan the obituaries, in case the papers have reported Chávez 's death in advance, too.

East vs. West
My hotel is blocks away from the rally in Chacao, in eastern Caracas, where the wealth and alarm systems of the city are concentrated, along with the opposition to Chávez. These marches, which have become a monthly event, always convene in this neighborhood before heading to Miraflores.

If the convergence were closer to the Capitolio area, surrounded as it is by the poor barrios of the Libertador district, well-to-do protestors would have to go into working-class neighborhoods by themselves to get there. The organizers, it seems, would rather march all the way across the length of the city.

Back in January, the marchers banged pots and pans, in imitation of Argentina's cacerolazo protests, to symbolize their "hunger." Mirella, a Chávez supporter whom I meet outside Miraflores, explains it to me this way: "You have these people in the east saying 'Chávez , you're starving us all, and their shopping cart is full.' But here in the west, in the barrios, we've got nothing and still we say, 'Viva Chávez!'"

A quick tour through Caracas is enough to confirm what she says. "Viva Chávez ," "No a los oligarcas" and words to that effect are spray-painted on every other block throughout Libertador. But in Chacao, chavistas are mighty scarce. Not a single Chacaoan I talk to thinks much of Chávez . But neither do they plan to take part in the march, though it is still early enough to make the kick-off rally. Nelson, a receptionist who is no fan of Chávez , says, "This is only going to make things worse and provoke violence."

It seems that most people in Venezuela fall into one of three camps: (1) Chávez is the Great Hope of the Nation, (2) Chávez is Personally Responsible for Everything Bad that Ever Happens in This Country, and (3) Chávez is Bad, but the Opposition is Worse. Surprisingly, here in anti-Chávez central, the prevailing attitude seems to be number three.

Bruno Cruiccha, an Italian é migré who runs a school where he teaches English, distrusts the motives of the opposition leaders, so he has nothing to do with the marches they organize, despite all the media's suasion—and despite his being solidly anti-Chávez . "No question: Chávez is bad for the country," he says.

I try to pin him down to specifics. What in particular has Chávez done that makes him so terrible?

"Well, when he was campaigning, he made all these promises about poverty, about corruption that he just hasn't kept," Cruiccha says.

But really, I ask, does any politician keep all of his or her campaign promises? Caldera and Pérez, Chávez's predecessors, weren't exactly bastions of honesty and effective government.

"It's true, all politicians break promises. And yes, the people before Chávez were very, very bad. But a lot of people just don't like Chávez's style. When he talks he's very obnoxious and bullying and off-putting."

(There's truth to this, but Chávez's supporters would rather say that he speaks forcefully and with quick-witted flair. The tenor of his words seems to depend on the ear of the beholder.)

One example: During an interview, a reporter asked him to elaborate on what he and his supporters term the oligarquí a. Chávez was asked—and I'm paraphrasing—"Are you saying that they're a bunch of escualos— sharks?" No, Chávez replied, "They're not exactly escualos, they're just escualidos." Squalid.

His opponents immediately seized on that as proof of his "divisive rhetoric," and co-opted the term escualido as a badge of honor.Y¥Chavistas were merely amused.)

Cruiccha continues, "And he's not so intelligent. Can you imagine having a president running your entire country who isn't even that smart in the first place?"

Er, well...

But I try to steer us back to policy. Again, are there any specific Chávez policies that you find really objectionable? Cruiccha pauses to think, so I get more specific myself: How about the notorious Land Reform Law, one of the infamous 49 decrees that Chávez passed late last year? US press reports said this law, which calls for redistribution of fallow land to peasant farming cooperatives, was Chávez 's most controversial maneuver. According to Reuters, the AP, the New York Times, etc., its passage helped spark the firestorm of anti-government protests. The middle class, say the reports, took the law as a signal that property rights were being rolled back.

It is what Chávez represents, not what he does, that shapes people's opinions of him. To chavistas, he is "Bolivar and Christ in one," while to the opposition, he's an uncouth bumpkin who wants to "Cubanize" Venezuela by taking money away from those who have it and setting himself up as dictator.

Cruiccha insists that's not the case. "No, no, the land reform is actually a good thing. It's good for the economy. Venezuela is big; when there is all this land that's going to waste and not being used while we import all our food, that doesn't make any sense. We need to grow more things here, and that will help us diversify. Right now we don't grow anything, except oil fields."

I blink. A middle class Chávez foe sings the virtues of land reform? I ask him, Do Venezuelans in general, including your middle-class peers, feel the same?

He nods. "They do. Those who think at all, anyway." I begin to suspect that reports of widespread fear of the Land Reform Law have more to do with North American reporters projecting their own sentiments onto entire populations than with any actual consensus among the Venezuelan middle class. No doubt rural landowners and big business types who like to acquire real estate are furious with the Land Reform Law. But beyond that, because the trade-related economic circumstances behind the issue are unique to Venezuela, it is irresponsible of foreign reporters to try to make blind, unsourced speculations about Middle-Class Joe's land reform "fears" sound like authoritative "news."

Okay then, so it's not the Land Reform Law. One more time: when you consider Chávez 's policies, what do you find so objectionable?

"It's the way he comes across," Cruiccha says. "It's not so much about policy. He's insulting. But there's no doubt—I'm telling you—he brought this on himself, and he deserves everything that he gets."

A pattern emerges. Venezuelans in general are very well-informed and politically engaged; they can talk eloquently and in depth about the burning political questions of the day, from the minutiae of world trade policy on down. But often, when they talk about the president, they suddenly resort to esoteric pop psychology, like voters anywhere in the world.

It is what Chávez represents, not what he does, that shapes people's opinions of him.

To chavistas, he is, as a editorial put it, "Boli var and Christ in one," the great Liberator and the great Savior, the unpretentious and brave man of the people who will stand up to the greedy and corrupt oligarcas that exploit them.

To the opposition, his is an uncouth bumpkin who wants to "Cubanize" Venezuela by taking money away from anyone who has any and in the process setting himself up as dictator.

But more, he is the personified proof that the tables can be reversed in a class war. (In an excellent New Yorker profile about Chávez , Jon Lee Anderson quotes a white middle-class Venezuelan as saying: "El peón tomado la finca"— "The peon has taken over the farm.")

This symbolism strikes me as perverse. It prevents people from being able to take stock of Chávez 's very real accomplishments and his equally real mistakes. More importantly, it reduces politics to arguments and maneuvers centered on one man.

This is especially damaging to his supporters because, however dynamic a leader Chávez may be, the "movement" of his party, Movimiento Quinta Republica, is meant to be a movement toward participatory democracy, in which citizens begin to shape policy directly rather than just by proxy. One has to wonder: are those opposed to this change consciously trying to undermine it by disseminating the impression that the participatory drift (el proceso, as it is called) is actually its opposite, i.e., a drift toward centralizing state power into a "dictatorship"?

Not that Chávez can or should be minimized. Certainly, his multiple victories at the polls were the catalysts for bringing el proceso and the political consciousness of the public-at-large into prominence.

That shift, for the first time in Venezuela's history, made the "oligarcas" over into the "opposition." But the words chavista and anti-Chávez are telling: somehow a movement toward popular empowerment has become a cult of personality, opposed by a cult of character assassination.

But it is time that I make my way to this Gotterdammerung of a march. First, I swing by a pro-Chávez rally being held at a plaza several blocks away from the march route. It is at least several thousand strong, but the remarkable thing is how dark the crowd is. Every single person I see is mestizo, indio, or negro. It is a visceral reminder that the struggle in Venezuela is based on race as much as it is on class, and is as much a civil rights movement as the popular uprising that gripped the US in the Sixties.

While I am there, an older gentleman dressed in tattered clothes gives me a copy of an alternative community newspaper that he helps publish and distribute to counter the "disinformación" of the commercial media.

One more quick pitstop: I poke my head into a restaurant hoping it has a TV (it does) where I can see what the coverage is like now that the march is underway. The crowd looks huge. Interestingly, the camera crew films them entirely from above so as to give a greater impression of the number of people there. The station's correspondent gushes about the force and size of the march, and what this means for Chávez.

From what I can see on the screen, there seemed to be a few hundred thousand people in the street. (By way of contrast, studies show that most major media outlets, at least in North America, overwhelmingly choose close-ups and tight shots to film demonstrations. The audience can't get an idea of the number participants.) Selective images of screaming placard-wavers and long-haired drummers with multiple piercings reinforce stereotypes while undermining the public's ability to reconcile organizers' and authorities' estimates of crowd size. Also, the usual quotes from authorities worrying that protestors could become "violent" or "disruptive" are absent from today's coverage.)

I leave the restaurant wondering whether this crowd might in fact be big enough, together with the armed police escort promised by Chávez -hating Caracas mayor Peña, to take on the palace guard at Miraflores and do a variation on the coup attempt on 4/11. Charlie's words come back to me. "They're expecting the worst tomorrow... The opposition wants to see blood."

But when I get to the march route, I burst into laughter.

Instead of an overwhelming tide of "civil society" poised to bring down the government, what I see looks more like an Oreo cookie. Walking down the center of the street, between police barricades on either side, are a stream of fair-skinned Latinos in sunvisors, JanSport bags, and bandanas that read, "Soy escualido!" (I am squalid!).

But pressed up against them, filling every inch of space between the barricades and the buildings on each side, are masses of cocoa-skinned chavistas waving U.S. dollar bills at the marchers, giving them the finger, and holding up their blue copies of the Constitution. They burst into periodic chants and heckle their captive audience with gusto.

But the marchers are pinned, so they can only respond by sneering and waving their placards a little more vigorously. One woman shakes hers in a chavista's face. It reads, "Un Pueblo ignorante es instrumento de su propria destrucción"— "A people's ignorance is instrumental to its own destruction." (An interesting sentiment coming from a partisan of the forces that control the media.)

It's one thing to intellectually know that media entrusted with informing the public are misleading it. It's quite another to observe with naked eyes the truth they smother. The mere knowledge of distorted information forms a hardness—of despair, fury, helplessness—that settles like a stone in the pit of the gut. But to experience the actuality beneath the spin tempers the hardness with a feeling of superiority. (I have seen a truth that someone wants to keep secret.)

Clearly, part of the reason the television cameras filmed the march using bird's-eye crowd shots was because from that height, you can't see who's who. The "reality" being broadcast into millions of homes, literally and figuratively from above, says, 'Civil society came out today to say with one voice that it has had enough of Chávez .' But up close, in the streets, the reality—beleaguered white people pinned in by angry blacks and Indians—is very different.

An hour later, the spectacle is still the same, so I leave, still laughing. No, there will be no coup today.

The subway is packed with protestors going back to Chacao from the march. The conductor makes jokes about Chávez over the intercom before every stop, and the passengers cheer. I try to talk to two women, still flush from marching in the humidity outside and carrying their inevitable JanSport bags. When they find out I am a reporter, they refuse to give me their names.

So what provoked them to march today? "Chávez is a thief," the blond tells me.

A thief? What did he steal? "That's exactly what we'd like to find out."


I ask what they do for a living. "Oh no you don't! We can't tell you that!"

Why not? "We're not supposed to tell press people that," says the portly brunette.

Hm, smells like they might work for some affiliate of Fedecámeras, the big business lobby that urged its members to give their employees the day off, with pay.

Were you, I ask, given a paid day off from work to come out and protest?

Pause. "Yes. We were."

A few hours later I hop a flight out to Mérida, a Venezuelan town close to the Colombian border. Here I will look into rumors that right-wing paramilitary (read: death squad) activity is spilling over the Colombian border to combat Chávez 's "narco-guerilla government." I am greeted at the airport by Peter Maybarduk (though in Latin America he prefers to be called Pedro), an old friend and anthropologist researching travel articles for The Daily Journal.

Mérida is one of the five or so most beautiful cities I've ever seen, snuggled as it is in the Andes. But this is not a pleasure trip, so as soon as I step off the plane "Pedro" and I head to a pro-Chávez rally being held at the Plaza Bolí var in front of the Governor's Palace. (The Governor is from Chávez 's party, so he encourages this sort of thing.)

The crowd is large but not huge. There is folk song, jubilation, and fevered political talk. Several people are eager to talk to me when they learn I am an American journalist.

The festive mood is shattered when an announcer strides up to the podium and barks something into the mike that makes the crowd hiss. I don't catch what he says, so I ask Pete to translate.

"Right now, the national television stations are saying that we—us, at this rally—are storming the Governor's Palace."


Brad Carlton is an investigative journalist based in Spartansburg, SC.

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This story was published on August 28, 2002.
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