Saturday, June 23, 2007

Villobos on Chavez

From Marc Cooper's blog:
Villalobos V. Chavez

Joaquin Villalobos, the former commander of the Salvadoran FMLN
guerrilla army, takes on Hugo Chavez in this tangy opinion piece
(which I had the fun of translating).

Back in 1988 I had the privilege of doing the first American TV
interview with Joaquin (for PBS Frontline) -- and I never regretted
the four days of hiking through mountainous war-torn northeastern El
Salvador (along with $100k in TV equipment) that it entailed.

Villalobos was -- and is-- a fascinating intellect. And on the
surface, about 150 times brighter than the brutish Mr. Chavez. After
participating in the historic 1992 peace talks that ended the
Salvadoran civil war, Joaquin hung up his guns and uniform and entered
civilian political life. Along with most of the top guerrilla
leadership, he left the FMLN and he attempted the formation of new,
more democratic progressive political force. It didn't go very far,

He did, however.

Completing his studies at Oxford, Villalobos is now one of the more
sought-after consultants on security and development in Latin America.
He takes a lot of gruff from various U.S. and European arm chair
revolutionaries -- fantasits who are all for "people's war" so long as
other people are fighting it.

Having led one of the most tenacious, and in many ways. one of the
most successful insurgencies of the past 25 years, Villalobos prefers
to draw some sober lessons from the entire experience.

Anyway, his thoughts on Chavez should be taken quite seriously.

The Nation
Revolution in Venezuela?

Joaquín Villalobos

This essay originally appeared in the Madrid daily El País. Translated
by Marc Cooper
Hugo Chávez has committed a grave error in closing down the opposition
TV station, which has been on the air a half-century. Like it or not,
this was not a frontal attack on the economic elite but rather a blow
to the cultural identity of millions of Venezuelans--and it will have
severe consequences for the government. Trying to replace popular soap
operas and game shows watched by the poor with pathetic
"revolutionary" programming is as bad as leaving them without food.

What Chávez has got wrong is his belief that he has made a revolution
when in fact he's simply won some elections. And even those victories
are more attributable to an arrogant, bejeweled opposition that lacks
mass adherents than to Chávez. This has allowed Chávez to dominate
some state institutions and to change some of the rules of the game,
but it doesn't give him the leverage needed to impose the sort of
drastic ideological sea change he clearly intends.

In Venezuela there has been no revolutionary rupture, as there was in
Cuba and Nicaragua, two countries where there was no democratic
history. In Cuba the change was violent and encompassing; all of the
institutions were recast. And to date there is no real Cuban
opposition--nor are there real elections, freedom of the press or
private property. In Nicaragua the change was equally violent, and
though mistreated, the institutions of press freedom, political
opposition, elections and private property all survived.

Venezuela might be experiencing a period of extreme polarization and
social conflict, but that is not a revolution. In revolutionary times,
violence becomes prevalent, first in the form of rebellion and later
in the form of counterrevolution. So far in Venezuela, political
violence has been more verbal than material.

Forty years of peaceful transitions of government power created a
democratic culture among Venezuelans that has, fortunately until now,
made violence unnecessary. The rule of law might be weak, but there is
nevertheless the rule of law. The mistake made by the opposition in
the attempted coup of 2002 was precisely to undervalue this democratic
tradition. Overthrowing governments is no easy task, nor is peacefully
modifying the basic pillars on which they are built. A revolutionary
rupture creates a situation of great social exaltation that--for
better and worse--opens up spaces to change many things, including
prevailing ideologies and cultural traditions. But short of
revolution, these things are difficult to change.

Anticapitalist revolutions are fueled more by dictatorships than by
poverty. In Venezuela there was no dictatorship, and poverty was not
key to Chávez's ascent. Every revolution imposes austerity, and this
is something to which Venezuelans on the right and left remain immune.
Venezuela is not an industrial capitalist state but rather one of
export and consumerism. Chávez is strengthening the economic role of
the state, redistributing oil income and forming new economic elites,
all mixed with doses of populism, corruption and business
opportunities. All this is new--but it is not revolution and it is not

Chávez lacks a revolutionary party and instead depends on a fragmented
political structure rife with different ideologies. To his right is
the military, to his left some intellectuals and below him a
politically diverse base. Converting this into a unified party would
mean butting heads with a lot of local bosses who like to disagree.
Chavismo has accomplished something important by giving power and
identity to thousands of Venezuelans who had been marginalized, but it
is not cohesive, either ideologically or historically. Rather, it is
held together by petrodollars.

Nor does Chávez have a revolutionary army. On the contrary, the army
has defeated him twice (1992 and 2002). The complicity of the army
with Chávez today rests solely on weapons purchases, and that is much
more about corruption than about preparing for war. It's exactly this
sort of privileged corruption that closes the path to authentic
revolutionary change. The Venezuelan military will neither kill nor
die for Hugo Chávez.

Fidel Castro survived all the many attempts on his life. Daniel Ortega
led a successful insurrection in Nicaragua and Evo Morales made a
swift transition from the barricades to the presidency of Bolivia.
Chávez, by contrast, sells oil to the Americans; on two occasions he
surrendered to his enemies with no fight; and he currently sleeps with
an enemy army. This pushes him to engage in public provocations in
order to burnish his revolutionary credentials, as he has by insulting
George W. Bush. Attacks strengthen Chávez. Tolerance weakens him.
Chávez needs external enemies to help him hide the corruption of his
own functionaries, the incompetence of his government, the division
among his supporters and the lack of security in the streets of Caracas.

With his latest acts Chávez has turned the process of accumulation of
forces against himself and has suddenly revitalized a demoralized
opposition. Maybe he will be able to make some more changes in
Venezuela. But he will never be able to get rid of elections. And as
long as there are elections, there will be no permanent majorities, no
fraud so great as to be insurmountable, no set of alliances that are
eternal. Oil money can help Chávez do many things--but it will never
be enough to buy himself a revolution.

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