Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ay, No es No, y Si es Si, and never the two shall meet...

February 15th, 2009. Caracas.

Today, the people of Venezuela will vote on a constitutional amendment that will (or won’t) allow the president to run for another reelection. The country has divided itself between the ‘Yes’ campaign, which supports the amendment, and the ‘No’ campaign, which wants to keep a legal limit on Chavez’s leadership. In the capital city of Caracas, which is the center of political mobilization for both Chavistas and the opposition, everyday life is simultaneously electrified and paralyzed by the upcoming decision. Every street is covered with posters and graffiti. Almost every day for the last several weeks there have been marches and parades. The city is split between two slogans: ‘Claro que Si’, and ‘No es No’.

At stake in the hearts and minds of many Venezuelans is nothing less than the future of the country. For those who support Chavez, the whole revolutionary process hangs in the balance. He is the only leader capable of unifying all the revolutionary elements and movements in Venezuelan society towards a common vision, they will tell you. Meanwhile, those who oppose Chavez see this as possibly their last opportunity to get rid of him.

The leaflets and banners of the opposition, which fill the the rich neighborhoods, warn you in the most dire and urgent terms about the dangers of what they are calling “indefinite reelections”. Like the Chavistas, they use national symbols to legitimize their agenda; the Venezuelan flag, and the words Simon Bolivar. On most of their propaganda, Bolivar’s famous quote reads: “…nothing is more dangerous than allowing the same citizen to remain in power over a long period of time.” A very few of those who will vote ‘No’ today are people who consider themselves revolutionaries, and share Bolivar’s concern. The vast majority of the opposition, however, are upper-middle class people, whose historical privilege and power the revolutionary process threatens.

In response to the allegation of the opposition that the amendment calls for ‘indefinite reelections’, a recent letter by Hugo Chavez, distributed by his supporters, and titled ‘El Despliegue’, or ‘The Unravelling’ reads in part:

“Every time that I hear a petit-yankee say that the amendment is “indefinite reelection,” I remember Shakespeare in Macbeth: ‘... a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’... Simply, reelection is definite, or it isn’t. Look: the act of reelection necessarily signifies the definite call to elections; the definition of a date for popular voting and an exactly defined period of mandate; the Constitution defines the terms, from four to six years, for all offices of popular election... Nothing exists then, that resembles what the petit-yankees call ‘indefinite reelection’!”

Whatever drives these constituencies, be it politics or privilege, ideology or income, love or rage, dignity or indignation, the divide between them is stark and tense. Walking through a neighborhood with the wrong t-shirt will get you yelled at and spit on, if not worse. To an outsider, or to the naive, this tension may at first may seem unfortunate, dangerous, and simplistic. But from another perspective, these polarized politics are a reflection of the very real polarization that has existed for centuries in Venezuelan society. In Caracas, a cosmopolitan architecture of skyscrapers, malls and stock tickers is encompassed on all sides by shantytowns which spread haphazardly into the surrounding countryside. A culture of poverty and struggle encircles a culture of malls and museums, a culture for which the peoples and plights of the shantytowns barely exist. The structure of Venezuelan society is systematically divided -- is it such a surprise that its politics are? Whatever happens tomorrow, it is about time that politics reflect history, class and culture.

(translations by qms)

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