Campaign for Presidency Kicks-off in Venezuela: An Interview with Carmen Hidalgo

For Upside Down World:

It is Tuesday, April 2nd; music and people fill the streets of Caracas.  This is the official opening day of the campaign for Presidential elections in Venezuela, due to take place on April 14th after the death of Hugo Chavez, a popular leader who had won a total of fifteen elections during his fourteen years of rule.  Nicolas Maduro, former bus driver, ex-Vice-President and the man Chavez personally named as his successor, kicks off his tour of the country in Barinas, the state where Chavez was born and the heart of the Venezuelan countryside.  Henrique Capriles, the main opposition candidate who lost to Chavez last November, had originally announced that he would start in the same place, but changed his plans after his local team warned of the tensions such a clash of dates could cause.  But, as journalist Reinaldo Iturriza once told me, these are not “normal elections” that take place here in Venezuela.  From the beginning, the political campaigns are vibrant, colorful and visible everywhere you turn.

Carmen Hidalgo, aged 23, was born in Barinas, but currently lives and studies in the Andean city of Merida.  She has worked for Mision Ribas, an educational program set-up by the government in 2003 to provide classes and qualifications for people who had never completed high school. Carmen describes her home-town as “tender and sweet Barinas, full of friendly and very hard-working people.  Where the struggle every-day is to grow, and not only economically but also intelligently, always united together.”  Huge crowds turned out to greet Maduro in Barinas on Tuesday, a sign that opposition claims that the Bolivarian project will cease to exist without Chavez may not be as accurate as they wish to portray. Nevertheless, Chavez’ images does continue to dominate the government’s re-election bid; indeed, their campaign is named after him!

A couple of weeks before we spoke, Capriles had visited and spoke in Merida.  In reality, neither candidate waited for the date of April 2nd to begin rallying their troops.  In Carmen’s view, Capriles’ speech was “Chavez, but without the socialism.”

“Capriles understands that the majority of people like socialism; that is why we speak of a system of “inclusion.”  We remember that in the governments of the Fourth Republic [i.e. before the first election of Chavez in 1998] the country was full of exclusion and few had the opportunity to live well, due to the robbing of the country’smoney and resources. First [Capriles’ election campaign] has chosen to use the name Simon Bolivar.”  This suggests that they approve of “Bolivarianism,” whilst in the coup of April 2002, in which Capriles participated in the attack on the Cuban embassy, the first thing they did was to remove the word “Bolivarian” from the name of the country.  Secondly, they are using a t-shirt withCapriles eyes and signature, exactly the same as the Chavez t-shirt we designed during the last election campaign.  A political leader should be more serious and not copy the designs of the sovereign people.”

Many people believe that the opposition know that they will not win the upcoming elections.  Indeed, every single poll in the last two weeks, including those conducted by firms traditionally considered as opposition supporters, have given Maduro a lead of between ten and twenty-three points.  Accusations of external forces attempting to use the elections as an opportunity to destabilize the country flared up once again when US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson recently stated that although they were not favouring either candidate, “Capriles would make a good President”.  Venezuela Foreign Minister Elias Jaua responded by breaking off communication with the US, adding, “Mrs. Jacobson, when you learn that we are a sovereign country, then give us a call.”

Carmen says that everyone knows that Capriles is “totally immersed” with the US government, and claims the opposition candidate recently travelled to the country to “plan a campaign of destabilization”.

Nevertheless, it is largely a spirit of positivity that has been prevalent in Caracas in recent days.  On April 14th, millions of Venezuelans will go out to vote for their next President, possibly in larger numbers than ever before.  The central hope is that the results of the elections will be adhered to and respected.

“We spend more, in order to gain more”

For the New Internationalist:

 

Tamara brushes her fingers against the strings of her guitar, thoughtfully. I had met her on a trip into Plaza Bolivar, near the Capitolio Metro station in Caracas, where I keep noticing that there are a lot of people using wheelchairs.

 

‘I don’t know why,’ Tamara replied, ‘but you can see how things have changed. Before, it was much more difficult for disabled people to get around. The Metro was much less expensive, it cost money to get a wheelchair, there was no help. Also, people’s attitudes are changing.’

 

‘Before’ is a word I keep hearing in Venuzuela. For example, all of the museums and historical sights in the centre of the capital, Caracas, are free to enter, but it wasn’t like that ‘before’. Even one of the parks near Bellas Artes, a beautiful place to walk through, was exclusive ‘before’. The visibility of disabled people in day-to-day life in Caracas is something that I have found especially touching but, again, it wasn’t like that before. ‘It’s because it’s so much easier to get around if you’re in a wheelchair here!’ my younger brother comments.

 

‘I think it’s really important that you are making these observations, as a person who is coming from outside of Venezuela,’ Tamara continues. ‘Because here, after fourteen years, I think it is easy for us to forget these things. For example, pensions for senior people: there are some who say, yes this is great, but this is my right – it is not from the revolution. OK, you are correct, it is your right, but shall we see where your rights are if the opposition got into power?’

 

Tamara, like many Venezuelans, has thoughts of the Presidential elections on 14 April on her mind. Voters will need to decide who will replace Hugo Chàvez as president after he died in March 2013. ‘We do feel positive, but it is a completely new step. We need to be alert,’ she tells me.

 

It is during another trip to Plaza Bolivar when I see Ramon, a blind man, being helped along the street by a member of staff from the local Metro stop. He has accompanied him for quite some distance before stopping and pointing him in the right direction. It was both a surprising and heart-warming sight coming from London, a city where transport staff often believe their task is to hinder rather than help disabled people to travel.

 

When I approached Ramon to ask him some questions, he wanted to know who I was writing for. Eventually, once he was convinced of my credentials, he concluded: ‘Oh, so you’re with the process!

 

‘We need to get more disabled people into the government, the National Assembly, the regional governments, so that we are representing ourselves,’ Ramon continued. ‘There are laws defending and promoting our rights, but we should always be striving to ensure that they are properly enforced.’

 

The deep social changes are described to me as ‘the process’. Governments that came before the election of Hugo Chàvez in 1998 are grouped as ‘the Fourth Republic’. Venezuelans, now living in the Fifth Republic, do not want those days to return.

 

Solange works in Cacao Venezuela, a hugely popular hot chocolate café sitting on the corner of the Plaza. I wasn’t sure what to expect from our interview but, as with every person I speak to here, she speaks with deep political conviction and well-thought out analysis.

 

‘I think the hot chocolates are so good simply because of the pure cacao that we use,’ Solange says. ‘I can’t tell you the recipe, because there are other cafés that really want to know. But the problem with the capitalist companies is that they want to make such huge profits and nothing else.

 

‘We spend more in order to gain more.’

“To me, it appears like a dream…”

Every story has a motive; a thought that should always be kept in mind when reading the news.  Is it any wonder that we are only targeted, on a daily basis, with negative images from around the world.  In Egypt, all has become chaos thanks to “Islamists” taking over.  In Mali, the same situation would have engulfed another African, Muslim country if it were not for European soldiers restoring order.  In England, the government’s policies, many of which came into effect yesterday and throughout the rest of April, will make thousands of families homeless.  When you consider the sweep and rapidity of the tide of Conservative ideology scarring the face of England, it is hard to remember that they never actually won an election!  Here in Venezuela, an alternative to that ideology is being built, but its achievements are rarely reported.  Is it really a surprise?  Or do we need to read less “news” and more books?

 

The campaign for the Presidential elections begins today.  Every poll puts Nicolas Maduro in front, and a long way in front.  Tensions rose when Capriles announced that he would kick-off his campaign in Barinas, the state of the Venezuelan countryside and birth-place of Hugo Chavez, three days after Maduro had chosen the same state to begin his own campaign.  Why, the government asked.  According to our political culture, it’s a provocation, people summarised.  The following day, Capriles said that after advice from his team in Barinas, he would begin in Monagas state instead.

I made an interview with Jamal Amir, a Tanzanian man who has been living in Venezuela for the last fourteen years.  “I was speaking with a woman who supports the opposition, and they definitely believe that Capriles will win,” he told me.  “But to me, it appears like some kind of dream.  The only thing Capriles is doing is saying how bad Maduro is…”  He shakes his head.  “That is not the right thing to be doing now, he needs to be saying what he is going to do.  The bigger aspect is the fact that before Chavez died, he specifically named Maduro as the candidate that people should vote for if anything happened to him.  Now, people feel as if they have a commitment with Chavez.  In the last elections [on October 7th] there were a lot of Chavez supporters who didn’t come out to vote, and I’m sure supporters of Capriles too, but this time everyone wants to fulfil their commitment.”

 

Last night, an extraordinary meeting of the Forum of Sao Paolo took place in Caracas, opening with a recorded video message from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil.

 

“I am not interfering in what is an internal Venezuelan affair, but I could not leave aside my thoughts to a people that are so dear to us,” he said, before going on to lend his support to the Maduro campaign.

 

Will the United States make the same affirmation, not to get involved in an internal Venezuelan affair?  It’s a question that many people here would like an answer to.  I often wonder why people living in countries that interfere in the affairs of others on such a regular basis can take so long to understand the concept of imperialism.  I think it could be because they have never experienced life on the receiving end of their government’s foreign policy.  Juan Bosch was the first ever democratically-elected President of the Dominican Republic in 1963, but was overthrown in a military coup after just seven months in charge.  Over forty thousand US troops dispatched to the island later ensured the change.  In one of his books, entitled Pentagonism, Substitute of Imperialism, Bosch writes in reference to the people of the United States:

 

“The ‘pentagonist’ people [too] are exploited like a colony, since they pay, through their taxes, for the bomber planes that enrich their manufacturers.”

 

One of the speakers at the Forum of Sao Paolo last night was a young woman named Alba Santana, from the Youth of the FMLN in El Salvador.  She said that young people were determined to be a leading force in the uniting of the continent, and that they were “returning” to the ideas of “the Liberator”, Simon Bolivar.

 

“Last year, Lula sent a message to Chavez in regards to the Presidential elections in Venezuela,” Santana added.  “Now, we want to send the same message to Maduro; your victory is our victory too.”

“Media restrictions” in Venezuela

The press seems to have developed in a positive way since I first visited Venezuela, in December 2011.  Yes, the richer sections of society still possess the largest media interests, but alternative sources of information are flourishing.

Ciudad CCS is a free newspaper, distributed daily across the capital.  There are elements of this paper that I have been particularly impressed by, and would like to draw attention to.  On page ten of each edition, we find a section entitled “Denuncia la gente”, or “The people denounce”.  One message reads, “The schools in San Juan are in a bad state.  Make a call to the Ministry of Education.”  Another person writes, “The butcher El Barbecho is selling a kilo of meat for double what it should cost.  The authorities need to make an inspection.”  Another note says, “The staff in the Banco Industrial de Venezuela, near the Ministry of Education, aren’t treating customers properly.”

Moreover, the tone of the journalism is refreshing.  The opinion columns aren’t afraid of having an opinion, when they say “…if Capriles is an independent candidate, then I am the reincarnation of the Inca god Quetzalcoatl.”  There are articles announcing the opening of bicycle-only lanes on Saturdays alongside analyses of foreign affairs.  The paper is funded by the municipality, and hugely popular throughout the city.

Wouldn’t it be a positive thing to have free newspapers in local areas of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, and cities across England, informing people of issues in their neighbourhoods and giving them the chance to raise issues with the politicians that are supposed to represent them?  Maybe some already exist… or maybe we can do better.

Then again, the government and the media in the UK haven’t been the best mix in recent years.

It is very strange when people mention “restrictions of freedom of press” that have taken place in Venezuela.  If Hugo Chavez did attempt to clamp down on the media here, he did a terrible job.  When TV channels described the democratically elected President with racist epithets such as ‘monkey’, or compared him with such well known leftist leaders as Hitler and Mussolini, and that is decried from afar as “restriction of press”, you really have to wonder what a liberal policy would look like.

There was one TV channel, RCTV, that was shut down after its role in the attempted coup d’etat of April 2002.  Or rather than “shut down”, which is how the action is usually described, we can be more accurate and say that the government waited until its broadcasting license expired five years later, and then refused to renew it.  Well, let us try to imagine a similar event occurring in a front room in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

A family switches the television on to watch the evening news on ITV.  Instead, except for the news, there are adverts shown over and over again, telling people to march to Downing Street the next day to remove David Cameron from power.

Do you think ITV would last for five years?

Also, even after the decision, the channel continued to broadcast via satellite and cable, as RCTV International.  It’s a very strange type of “restriction of freedom of press” they have in Venezuela!

There is more than one type of freedom of press.  Freedom of expression, yes, but also the freedom of the public to receive accurate, interesting and relevant information.

Ofel Albano Sanchez, aged 30, born in Caracas

Plaza Bolivar was one of the first places I visited after arriving in Caracas.  A relaxing spot in an otherwise bustling city, with a collectively-run café serving the best hot chocolate imaginable on the corner, means there is not much more you could ask for.

 

On the pedestrianised road that runs from the nearest Metro station to the Plaza, Ofel greets me with a “Como estas, hermano?”  When I ask him the same, his one-word answer never differs; “Pa’lante!”  “Onwards!”

 

This morning, Ofel is serving his customers with sweets and mobile phone calls from the seat of his electric wheelchair, just as he does every day.  This is the only way I have known Ofel, working independently, travelling through the city on his own, and so I presume it is also the only way he has ever known.  As I learn from our conversation, however, this is far from the truth.  When I ask about the benefits of Mision Jose Gregorio Hernandez, created by the government in 2008 to help improve quality of life for Venezuelans with disabilities, Ofel doesn’t have to point far.

 

“This wheelchair!  I’m thirty years old now, and two years ago I got this wheelchair from the mission.  Before that, I had never had a wheelchair in my life!  I couldn’t work, but now, thanks to the chair, I can.”

 

The many government missions are always a point of political discussion in Venezuela, and often a point of controversy.  Mision Barrio Adentro, for example, sent tens of thousands of Cuban doctors into the poorest areas of the country to provide free medical treatment for the people there, many of whom had never seen a doctor in their lives.  This was denounced by the opposition as a campaign of Communist propaganda, and they decried the growing presence of “Cuban militias” in the country.  No evidence was provided to back up this claim.  The official Venezuelan medical society claimed they were being undermined, somewhat ignoring the fact that the Cuban doctors were working in areas they had always refused to visit.

 

Nevertheless, the missions have been a hugely positive development for millions of people in Venezuela, and more recently it seems that the opposition have resigned themselves to that fact.  A mysterious text message received on my phone earlier this week announced that Capriles had “guaranteed” to keep many of the benefits in place if he was to be elected as President.  Ofel, however, seemed far from convinced.

 

“I hope that Nicolas [Maduro] wins [the upcoming Presidential elections].  Why?  Because Capriles only cares about money.  If Capriles wins, the benefits for disabled people… out!  The missions… out!  So yes, I’m going to vote for Maduro.”

 

I remember passing by just a few days after Hugo Chavez had died.  Ofel was decked from head-to-toe in red clothing.  Today, I ask him about his thoughts when he heard the news.

 

“Brother, bad.  I couldn’t believe that Chavez was dead.  And I still can’t believe.  It was the first time that we had a good President.”

 

“The United States?” Ofel adds.  “I don’t want to speak with them.”

Why Venezuelan people will miss Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez was President of Venezuela for fourteen years.  A lot can change in such a period of time.  How interesting it has been to read over the last couple of days a volume of speeches all taken from his first year in office, 1999.  Yes, many things have taken place in fourteen years but in people, in their character, most things remain as they were.

 

Chavez always spoke about the importance of communication in a language that people can immediately understand and relate to.  In this collection, the campaign to elect a Constituent Assembly becomes three blows of a round of boxing, and the revolution becomes a baseball match that cannot be considered over until the very last ‘out’.  After particularly pleasing electoral results, Chavez says they have hit a home run with all the bases full.  Nature, too, is a major reference points for the man born in the llanos, or countryside of Barinas state.  He speaks of human beings in comparison to trees, who can never live as a sole existence but rely on their roots to take sustenance from beneath the ground, the Sun to provide them with energy from the sky and the God who created them.  He speaks of God on almost every occasion, recognising a power far greater than his own, something he would continue to do even at the height of his popularity and throughout his political career.  As for his own position, on several occasions it is “nothing more than a straw blowing in the wind”, or only a wire that carries the electric current of the people.

 

Always a big reader, it was in August 1999, speaking before the newly-elected Constituent Assembly, when Chavez turned towards Shakespearean tragedy for inspiration.

 

“”A few nights ago I was reading some of the tragedies of Shakespeare, The Tempest.  The first scene begins with a boat that goes on the high seas and suddenly they hear sounds of thunder and see lightning, a strong wind is heard that comes combing the waves of the sea, the captain goes out and shouts: “Fast that the storm comes.”… when the boatswain sees the brave sailors have lowered the sails and are each in his place and have tied the knot and are ready, turning around and putting his face to the strong, blowing wind and says: “And now wind, blow, blow hard, do what you want storm, I have room to manoeuvre you”.  I say that today, like Shakespeare: “Blow strong wind, blow storm, I have the Assembly to manoeuvre you.”

 

For Chavez, this was the political struggle he faced, containing both the beauty of a piece of literature, and the fierceness of the storm.  He had witnessed the Caracazo of February 1989, seen the atrocities the Venezuelan armed forces had committed against their own people.  He had participated in the military uprising of February 1992, the failure that will always be remembered as a success.  But more than anything, Chavez speaks with emotion.  Almost every speech ends with “dear friends” or “a hug for everyone”.  Sometimes it’s “a big hug”, sometimes “a revolutionary hug”.

 

The night before beginning a trip to Asia, Chavez wants to tell the country where and what he is going to do, and ends by saying “I will miss you”.  It isn’t the language of politicians, and that is why Venezuelan people will miss him.

 

“…Jesús, el flaco, el del burro de Nazareth: “Dejad que los muertos entierren a sus muertos” y vamos todos a la vida… a la vida con el pueblo”.

 

“Jesus, the skinny one, the one of the donkey of Nazareth [said]: “Let the dead bury their dead” and let’s all go together to life… to life with the people”.

“Public opinion”

The first time I travelled to Venezuela, I remember thinking about not only the difference in the political situation here and the positive developments that have occurred, but the fundamental contrast in the thinking behind those changes that would make them impossible in England.  It is that, in fact, which I believe makes it so hard for some people to understand, or even believe, what has been happening in Venezuela over the last fifteen years.  Unfortunately, we still live under the law of [well, a Queen!] a government that seems primarily driven by profit and money, rather than the well-being of human beings and society.  I am sure that the recent Budget would serve to confirm this, although I cannot say I have studied its publication.  It seems relevant to compare that government’s concept of saving money and cutting costs with a speech made by Hugo Chavez on 25th March 1999, just under two months after he was sworn in as President of his country for the first time.  He, we might add, had been democratically-elected by an overwhelming majority, unlike our own government.  Speaking from the Presidential palace, Chavez said:

 

“En el Ministerio de la Secretaría cientos y cientos, millones de bolívares se han ahorrado eliminando teléfonos, vehículos, gastos y ya he firmado el decreto elaborado por el Procurador y un equipo que lo está coordinando, para vender un lote grande de aviónes, empezando por uno asignado al Presidente de Venezuela.  De Pdvsa vamos a vender esos aviones, no se justifica tanto avion en poder del Estado: ciento veintiocho.”

 

Or:

 

“In the Ministry of the Secretariat hundreds and hundreds, millions of bolivars have been saved eliminating telephones, vehicles, expenses and I have already signed the decree issued by the Attorney General and a team that is coordinating, to sell a large batch of aircraft, starting with one assigned to the President of Venezuela.  From PDVSA [the state oil company] we are going to sell these planes, it’s not justified to have so many planes in the power of the State: one hundred and twenty-eight.”

 

The government in England love telling the poorest sections of society how there is no money and that is why they need to makes such swathing cuts to services.  Perhaps they do not realise that poor people know better than anyone the importance of not wasting money and balancing a budget, because they have to do it on a weekly basis.  Again, is this why it is difficult for many to have an appreciation for what is happening here, because we have spent so long living with governments that look out primarily for their own interests?

 

This lack of understanding can similarly be applied to many sections of the opposition in Venezuela.  Capriles, the main opposition candidate for both recent and upcoming elections, recently stated that Chavez “didn’t help poor people, he just gave them money and made them miserable.”  Well, there are two important points that immediately spring to mind.  Firstly, if 80% of the population of a country are “poor”, and a person comes into power and gives that 80% money, it would be difficult to classify that as a bad thing.  More significantly, there are many things that the majority of people have gained over the last years that are far more important than money.  In many of the barrios surrounding Caracas this morning, and every morning, an efficient, free and clean cable car service carries people into the centre of town in five to ten minutes, compared with the hours over precarious, traffic-jammed, steep roads that the journey took before.  That change doesn’t come about by giving people money; it comes about by building a cable car.  This is only one example, but it is a concrete change in people’s everyday lives.

 

But there are other, even more crucial developments that you will not see at first glance.  According to a recent conversation with a friend of mine here, before the Chavez government were elected, barrios were not even included on maps.  This meant that not only transport but electricity and water services were extremely poor, and very often non-existent.  The government brought water, healthcare, education, road improvements, rubbish collection and above all recognition into those areas.  That is why millions keep electing the same government.

 

Henrique Capriles Radonski will never understand that.  As the conversation continued; before this government, so-called ‘public opinion’ was always that of the middle-class.  The great majority were simply ignored.  If the areas they lived in were not even officially mapped, you can just about imagine what their media representation was like.  One of the great changes here is that the majority of society have been given a voice, and they are speaking with amplitude.

 

There are many people who have never in their lives experienced the lights suddenly cutting out.  There are many people who simply do not know what it means to switch a tap and for no water to emerge.  In England, of course, but also in Venezuela.  But here, they are not the only form of ‘public opinion’ that exists.