Thursday, 4 December 2008

Venezuela: distortions, reforms and the music of hope

Following the recent election results in Venezuela, giving Hugo Chávez another impressive mandate, the Venezuelan Information Centre issued this concisely-worded reminder:
"VIC will continue to explain the truth about Venezuela and challenge the media distortions which, in reality, reflect incredulity that any Latin American country should have the temerity to break free of the tutelage of the United States and use its natural resources to improve the well being of its people."
It seems, indeed, for the US and its media proxies, a seemingly audacious idea. Time, for example, talk of "how passionately the anti-U.S. firebrand [Chávez] keeps working to thwart Washington's interests in the hemisphere" - as if Venezuela's own interests have no significance. Try to imagine Time noting "how passionately the anti-Venezuelan firebrand [Bush] keeps working to thwart Caracas's interests in the hemisphere".

While Time revel in how "el comandante's celebration was blunted" by the opposition gains, they're forced to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that:
"Then again, Chávez is hardly a dictator. Venezuelans can still criticize him in the media, and ever since he was elected in 1998 (and in a special 2000 election and again in 2006), he's followed democratic procedure and conceded defeat, however irascibly, when it's come. Chávez's backers insist that even if term limits are eliminated, Venezuela's opposition, unlike Cuba's, can still dethrone him."
Which should answer objections to Chávez's newly-proposed referendum on constitutional extension of the presidential term. Yet such caveats remain token admissions among the endless pages of character assassination.

Encouraging the reforms

We needn't be under any illusions about the success, to date, of the Bolivarian reforms to see the kind of forces attempting to strangle them. Nor should we shirk from recognising the internal problems the revolution is facing.

Chávez's PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) lost a number of seats in the elections, the partial consequence, notes Mike Gonzalez, of the growing gulf between the poorest, still supporting Chávez, and a brooding, rightist middle class unhappy at seeing their privileges eroded to the reforms. The spectre of corruption among some of the new "Chavista bureaucracy", argues Gonzalez, also had a negative electoral effect for Chávez, a warning of discontent from below that the reformist agenda must be strengthened.

Gonzalez also remains a useful voice in asking where the revolution is going. While part of the revolutionary movement in Venezuela rightly involves the defence of Chávez by the poor - those who defined the revolution in 2002 by saving him from the coup plotters - Gonzalez also sees the need to intensify the transfer of power from the state and nascent party apparatus to the Bolivarian networks; namely, the people.

This is not to undermine Chávez. Rather, it's to recognise the contradictory tensions within the revolutionary process as the state/party entrench new figures with powers and privileges they become reluctant to give up, thereby stunting citizen ownership and controls, the very goals of Bolivarian participatory democracy.

Gonzalez's critique is, in this vein, a laudable look at the structural faults of the revolution; an educational analysis of the tensions for Venezuela as it seeks, with regional allies, to build a pan-Latin alternative to Washington/Wall Street hegemony, while pursuing its own internal micro-based Bolivarian reforms.

And, as Gonzalez and many others know, there's a consistent queue of media assassins ever-ready to discredit those reformist endeavours.

Much of this comes in crude reference to Venezuela's social problems. For example, in a recent Unreported World film, Venezuela: Cult of the Thugs, the spectacle of ongoing crime and violence across Venezuelan barrios is offered as supposed evidence of Chávez's 'failures':
"Venezuela, the world's fourth largest oil producer, has seen its murder rate triple after nine years of leadership by President Hugo Chavez. At least one person is murdered every 40 minutes and the government's own statistics show it now has one of the world's highest murder rates."
This is trite liberal reportage which fails, or refuses to see, either the wider regional or economic context within which such crime prevails. Nor do we get the sightest hint of the massive political-corporate forces weighing on Chávez and the revolution. Instead, it's pitched as some kind of 'stark revelation' that the 'great socialist alternative just can't deliver'.

As admirably noted in Sean Penn's recent meetings with Chávez in Caracas and Raul Castro in Havana, the West continues to paint a grossly distorted picture of Venezuela, Cuba and this reformist hemisphere. It's also a staggering anomaly that people like Chávez can be so widely vilified while Bush, Blair and their cohorts enjoy effective exemption for their mass crimes. As Penn noted, in preparation for his visits:
"I had grown increasingly intolerant of the propaganda. Though Chávez himself has a penchant for rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war."
Never do Time and other media servants to power see fit to discuss the criminality and genocide perpetrated by successive US administrations in Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, across Latin America itself.

Make music, not war

While much of the Western media continue their routine slander of Chávez and the Bolivarian reforms, here's one inspiring lesson in social intervention, Venezuelan-style, that films like Unreported World fail to mention. Born of an earlier initiative, now supported by the Chávez government and Venezuela's local communities, the globally-acclaimed El Sistema project is taking thousands of deprived kids from the barrios and giving them a participatory education in musicianship.

All children are eligible and encouraged to participate. Many have become internationally-renowned performers. Yet, even that's a kind of secondary accolade beside the aims of this wonderful collective, giving joyful stimulus to youngsters susceptible to a life of crime and poverty.

One of El Sistema's finest talents is the brilliant young conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Leading the stunning Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a product of El Sistema, Dudamel and his colourful entourage wowed last year's London Proms with a carnivalesque performance, including an unforgettable rendition of Bernstein's Mambo.

In a pleasing departure for the BBC, the story of El Sistema's development was featured in Alan Yentob's recent Imagine series. In a memorable sequence, we see the humanitarian arts figure Richard Holloway visit Venezuela with a Scottish delegation. His heart captured by the performing kids, Holloway helped bring the El Sistema idea back home to a deprived part of Stirling, an initiative that continues to spread to other poor locales.

It's inspiring to see this positive human energy resonate around the world, particularly as it derives from a country so engaged in meaningful, if still difficult, transition.


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