Phantasmic Socialism

Publication: In These Times
Author: Handley, Joel
Date published: July 1, 2011
Phantasmic Socialism

WHEN VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT Hugo Chávez speaks of revolution, many progressives, having long understood the U.S.led domination and exploitation of Latin America, are eager to believe him.

In Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle (See Sharp Press, April 2011), Rafael Uzcátegui, a Venezuelan journalist, anarchist and human rights worker, offers an alternative to the left’s portrayal of Chavez and his so-called Bolivarian Revolution. His is a particularly useful critique because it comes from neither the right-wing opposition, nor from overzealous Chavistas, but from someone who ardently desires real revolution for the people of Venezuela. Uzcátegui sees Chavez’s “21st century socialism” as a predictable, and, above all, common populist political stunt. He argues that while capturing the attention of Venezuela and much of the world through his hyperbole and confrontational stance, Chavez has continued the neoliberal policies and client-centered social programs of his predecessors.

Uzcátegui’s anarchism is more Thoreau than a black bloc vandal. He doesn’t want the end of government so much as he wants an autonomous civil society to make it obsolete. Indeed, autonomy is the main tenet of and inspiration for Venezuela. Uzcátegui set out to write a recent history of his country outside the influence of present and past propaganda. To this end, he includes voices from across the populace- from workers who, through failed cooperatives, have become indebted to the State, to government officials, to Chávez-supporters turned social movement activists – recalling Howard Zinn’s storytelling style.

His criticism, as he writes, is not “devoid of common sense.” He praises Chavez for building schools and health clinics in poor neighborhoods. Between 1999 and 2008, enrollment in school increased by 13 percent in Venezuela, according to UNESCO. And since 2003, Chavez has built 11,000 health clinics. The problem for Uzcátegui is that Chavez uses funds for new education and health care missions while neglecting existing schools and hospitals. This hurts those dependant on existing institutions while creating good publicity for Chávez.

Uzcátegui documents the difference between Chavez’s rhetoric and his results. The best example of Chavez’s hypocrisy and the progressive left’s willingness to believe him is his dealings with the oil industry. Former president Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized the industry in 1976. Since that time, transnational corporations continued to work within Venezuela under “technical assistance” contracts, but under Chavez, these companies, such as British Petroleum and Chevron, became part owners under “mixed enterprises” agreements. While continually demonizing transnationale to great fanfare within and without Venezuela, Chavez has given them more power and profits than any president in the last 40 years.

And despite Chavez’s long history of decrying the World Trade Organization, the International Development Bank and other centerpieces of the global neoliberal order, he has pledged to work with these organizations to further the exploitation of Venezuela’s most valuable natural resources – not only oil, but also natural gas and coal. Uzcátegui quotes a Bolivian hydrocarbon official who explains that a planned gas pipeline Chavez wanted to build from Venezuela to Argentina supposedly tor “the integration of the region” was actually proposed by transnational petroleum companies.

Chávez’s revolutionary rhetoric throws off the scent from his actual governance. Luckily, there are writers like Uzcátegui who see through the deception and electioneering. Uzcátegui’s insights make this a book about more than the failures of Chavez or the right/ left dichotomy he exploits so well. Despite its title, Venezuela is a broader work about the way our world works: how governments everywhere are in thrall to moneyed interests, and how statecraft has been reduced to spectacle.

Author affiliation:

JOEL HANDLEY, the assistant editor of In Viese Times, is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medili School of Journalism, an Eagle Scout and the author of many unfinished works.

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