Hugo Chavez’s life came to an end on March 5, 2013. One hopes that the same will not be said about the Bolivarian Revolution which Chavez had inaugurated.
In November 2011, when I was in Venezuela for an international philosophy conference, no one could have predicted President Hugo Chavez’s resounding electoral victory a year later. President Chavez had just returned from his second set of chemotherapy sessions from Cuba, and he looked exhausted on the television screen. So divided was the country between pro-Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, that we were discouraged from discussing Venezuelan politics in public. A young Spanish delegate who impetuously raised pro-Chavista slogans in a domestic airport was in danger of getting beaten up by irate travellers who held the President responsible for frequent delayed flights.
The philosophy conference I attended, the sixth in an annual series, was organised by the Ministry of Culture in Chavez’s government – a fact amazing in itself. How many governments in the world sponsor international philosophy conferences, year after year, allowing the intellectual space for delegates to debate thorny issues like democracy versus socialism, and reform versus revolution? There were acrimonious discussions on Syria, Libya, and the politics of oil, where sides were taken and voices were raised. No government spokesperson tried to gag us at any time.
Yes, many of us were victims of delayed flights and bureaucratic red tape. We were supposed to leave Caracas for Maracaibo in the early afternoon. We left around midnight by a special chartered flight. After the three-day conference in Maracaibo, we were sent in pairs for the next couple of days to different parts of the country. At least, that was the plan. Many of us never got to our destination, but were stranded in Caracas, due to the ongoing CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) conference which led to overcrowding of hotels and flights at that time.
My stranded colleagues and I changed four hotels over three days. I had never seen so many bolts on doors or found the dexterity to operate a range of lockers in the rooms I occupied. The most important service on offer everywhere was personal security in the form of bodyguards. The locks on our rooms were changed everyday, and of course we needed a key for the elevator. There was no question of any one of us going out alone. Muggings and kidnappings happen every day. Wherever we went, we found houses barricaded with steel chains, rods, fences, padlocks, and what-have-you. It looked like a war zone.
Anyone who has been to Caracas will understand why. From one perspective, Caracas is a heavenly place – temperate weather all-year round, a gorgeous coastline meeting the Caribbean Sea on one side, and cloud-capped hills on the other. The city is heavenly if you are among the fortunate few who inhabit the tall buildings made of steel and chrome, with manicured lawns and spacious interiors. But most of the city’s residents live on the other side, along the hill slopes. You can see thousands of these cramped dwellings, perched precariously, side-by-side, on every side of every hill in the city. From a distance, these houses look like pretty, multicoloured matchboxes. Up close, it is a living hell of deprivation of all kinds. The day I left Caracas to return home, there was thunder, lightning, and a heavy downpour. A few more days of this kind of weather could lead to landslides, I was told by my friends. And landslides in Caracas are not just about mud and stones sliding down, but entire dwellings cascading down, sometimes with their inhabitants.
Unfortunately for the better-off, the people who live on the hillsides cannot be boxed in or forgotten. They spill out everywhere, especially in the late hours. If you drive round Caracas even at 8 p.m., you will see prostitutes and pimps, drug dealers and takers, on many streets. For Chavez’s detractors, this is the reality of Venezuela.
In fact, many of Chavez’s urban supporters – workers and trade unionists -- reside in the low-income areas in the cities. They are the beneficiaries of Chavez’s welfare policies. If there is one enduring, magnificent image of Venezuela that I carried back with me, it was not about the exhilaration of interacting with other philosophers, or about people cheering when I was identified as the single Asian delegate at the conference, or even about all of us spontaneously singing the International at the final session. The defining moment for me was attending a CELAC meeting of philosophers and workers in Caracas, and listening to their discussion on crucial matters of government policy and administration. This inclusionary process is one of the reasons why Venezuela re-elected Chavez for a third term in office. Hugo Chavez is dead. Long live the Bolivaran Revolution.
Nalini Rajan is Dean of Studies at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai