“Escualidos for Chavez?“ What I Saw at the Venezuelan Election

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By now you surely know that President Chavez won re-election in
Venezuela for another six-year term. What you might not realize is how
decisive the victory was. Chavez won 63% of the vote, which was more
than he won in previous elections. You might have expected the opposite—
that some people would become disillusioned by the slow pace of
progress in some areas, like reducing unemployment, reducing crime,
reducing corruption. But in fact what has happened is the opposite: the government has
broadened its support as the government and the social movements behind it have turned
promises into reality, extending education, health care, and job training into parts of the
population that had never seen them before. To put it crudely: they delivered the goods.
Chavez carried every state, even including Zulia, the state of which opposition candidate
Manuel Rosales is governor. It’s as if Gore carried every U.S. state in 2000, including
Texas. Progressives in the U.S. haven’t enjoyed an electoral rout like this since FDR,
something progressives in the U.S. might reflect on.
For the first time, the opposition accepted the result. Rosales conceded defeat. The
opposition did not, by and large, try to manufacture absurd charges of fraud. In 2004, the
polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland had produced a controversial exit poll in the referendum
on Chavez that contradicted the official result and more credible polls and was
used by the opposition in Venezuela and abroad to try to discredit the official result. This
time, after Penn, Schoen had been so discredited that major media in the U.S. stopped
reporting their polls, Penn, Schoen managed to produce an exit poll that showed the
same results as everyone else, including the official count.
The U.S. government, to its credit, also changed its tune somewhat. Thomas Shannon, US
Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, said, “The political battle that is
unfolding within Venezuela is now conducted through democratic institutions.“He also
said that Washington was ready to reinitiate talks with Caracas to normalize bilateral ties.
This apparent change in the stance of the U.S. government and the domestic opposition,
if it persists, is really important. The Venezuelan government and the social movements
supporting it have demonstrated that the process of social reform they have initiated
can go forward in the face of U.S. government opposition. It can also go forward in the
face of the type of opposition that the historically privileged elite in Venezuela has practiced
before now: trying to overthrow
the government by military coup, trying
to bring it down through a crippling
economic strike, trying to discredit the
democratic political process.
But the process of social reform will
bring more benefit to more people
more quickly if the U.S. government
and the domestic opposition do not try
to sabotage it.
Every dollar that Venezuela doesn’t
have to spend on national defense is a dollar
they can spend on education, on public
health, on building infrastructure, on job
creation, on preserving the environment,
on enriching Venezuelan culture.
And a prolonged siege mentality on
the part of the government or its supporters
as a result of implacable opposition
from the U.S. government or the
domestic economic elite would be
politically corrosive. Government policies,
it should go without saying, are
never going to be exactly right. There will always be some mistakes, some corruption,
some waste, some favoritism. The question is whether these mistakes are going to be
many or few. If charges of corruption or waste or favoritism are simply perceived as disingenuous
political attacks designed to undermine the government, the poor majority will
suffer because every dollar that isn’t wasted is another dollar that could be used to
improve the standard of living and the quality of life for all Venezuelans.
The social reforms set in motion by the Venezuelan government and the social movements
supporting it will have achieved their highest level of success when their broad goals
are accepted even by the majority of the economic elite, when even the escualidos—the disparaging
term Chavistas use to refer to their rich opponents—accept that all Venezuelans
have a right to education, to health care, to dignified employment. Think of Social Security in the United
States. As my grandfather Max Naiman
told Studs Terkel in his book Hard Times,
the activists who agitated for the passage of
Social Security legislation in the 30s “were
called every bad name you could think of.”
In the last six years we witnessed the best
political moment for trying to dismantle
the Social Security system in the United
States. Yet privatization advocates never
succeeded in undermining the broadly
accepted notion that every worker in the
United States is entitled to a minimum
income in retirement.
If this kind of social consensus could be
achieved in Venezuela, it would be a permanent
step forward for the majority.
Every escualido who actively opposes the
entire social reform project drains
resources from the project. Conversely,
every escualido who supports the broad
reform project strengthens it. It might be
hard to imagine such support now when
you hear some of the derisive rhetoric of
some of the escualidos against their less
privileged compatriots.
But there are some signs that a significant
shift is possible. In the presidential campaign
that was just fought in Venezuela,
the opposition did not directly challenge
the social reforms that have extended
access to education and health care.
Instead, the signature campaign promise of
the opposition was that they would issue
cards to every Venezuelan that would entitle
them to a direct individual share of the
country’s oil wealth. If you mention this
proposal to a Chavista they will roll their
eyes. But the proposal, like decision of the
opposition to participate in the electoral
process and accept the result, suggests a
shift. Some in the opposition are starting to
accept the new political reality of
Venezuela. They are not going to overthrow
the government by force. They are
not going to bring it down by economic
sabotage. The U.S. is not going to invade
nor succeed in undermining the government
by funding opposition groups. Nor
can they win national elections by shouting
about the specter of “Castro Communism.”
Anyone who opens their eyes in Venezuela
can see that is not what is going on here.
The posters and murals and graffiti in support
of the government and the process of
social reform are common, but they are
dwarfed by the billboards advertising cell
phones and plasma TVs. The poor majority
has been mobilized, they have tasted the
fact that politics can matter in their daily
lives, that they can democratically shape
their destiny. Villages that never had a high
school have kids studying medicine and
law. More and more young people from the
poor majority are becoming educated,
articulate activists. If the opposition wants
to compete electorally they have to make a
real appeal to the majority.
Prior to the election the U.S. firm
Evans/McDonough did an extensive poll of
the Venezuelan population, on the election
and other issues. The poll showed, not surprisingly,
that three-quarters of the well-off
planned to vote for the opposition. But
there is another way to look at this: one in
every four well-off people planned to vote
for Chavez.
A Quaker was once asked if she was discouraged
that only a fifth of the U.S. population
opposed the Reagan Administration’s
unprovoked bombing of Libya. She
said, “Our task is to make that opposition
more visible.” If the escualido supporters of
the social reform project became more visible,
it would be a great thing for the future
of the country.
For example: the Venezuelan government
has proposed making community service
a requirement for all university students.
Instead of grousing, these students
could organize themselves. They could say,
we’re willing to do community service, but
we want to have a role in shaping it, we
want it to be meaningful. How could the
government refuse?
Or another: some supporters of the
opposition complain that they have been
excluded from government jobs and assistance.
What if they tried a different
approach: what if they acknowledged that
in the past that they weren’t sensitive to the
needs of the poor majority, but now they
are ready to cooperate with everyone for the
benefit of all Venezuelans. There is no reason
in principle to assume that such an
approach couldn’t work. During the first
Palestinian Intifada, Palestinians who had
collaborated with the Israeli military occupation
were forgiven provided they publicly
confessed and swore not to repeat it.
For all his fiery rhetoric, Chavez has
governed as a gradualist. Political developments
have in many ways vindicated his
strategy. Well-off Venezuelans who can’t
enjoy their nice things unless others have
nothing will continue to be disappointed.
But well-off Venezuelans who can live happily
in a society where everyone has a right
to education, health care, and dignified
employment have nothing to fear, and a
great contribution to make.
More is at stake than Venezuela. Throughout
Latin America and beyond people are looking
to Venezuela not as a blueprint, but as a positive
example. If broad social reform that
extends basic economic rights to the majority
can succeed here through a democratic political
process without violence, it can happen
elsewhere. As such a process involves more
countries, it will become progressively easier,
as these countries can rely on each other for
trade and assistance. Already Venezuela has
enough medical students that it may be soon
able to replace the Cuban doctors here. Eventually,
Venezuela, like Cuba, could export
doctors and teachers around the world.

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