Debating Socialism With Venezuela’s True Believers

The president and the bishop are at it again. Their long-standing argument over whether Jesus Christ was a socialist seems to go something like this: “Yes he was.” “No he wasn’t.” “Was too.” “Nah-ah.” I love reading the newspaper in Caracas. This morning the government also published lists of folks who bought their quota of dollars at the subsidized rate, supposedly to travel, but never left the country. Shame on them! And once again, El Universal’s columnists were in a total frenzy, speculating over how far the government’s resolve to make all education socialist would go. Will sixth-graders be handed AK-47s to defend the revolution?

Desperate for a firsthand glimpse of the positive side of Chávez’s revolution—and to talk to folks who aren’t making plans to flee the country—Amanda and I set up a visit to one of the government’s vaunted “barrio adentro” missions. This is a comprehensive facility in the working-class neighborhood of Catia, underwritten by the state oil company, that offers medical care, employment, and housing for some of Venezuela’s poorest. I was especially eager to chat with some of the Cuban doctors who work at these clinics. In Cuba last year, people kept complaining to me that too many of their doctors were on such missions in Venezuela. Apparently, Chávez and his people are getting something in exchange for all the free oil and ideological solidarity provided to Havana.

I never made it to the mission, though Amanda did, and she reported back that it was all very impressive. I got distracted en route, as we stumbled across a constitutional “popular assembly” at Sucre Square, the neighborhood’s nerve center. The assembly’s purpose, I was told, was to have an “open-minded dialogue” about the proposed constitutional reforms. It was hosted by neighborhood activists—if you still have a red Members Only jacket stashed away in your closet, you have a bright future in Venezuela—and chavista university cadres. I grabbed a copy of the booklet containing the text of the proposed changes and pulled up a chair next to an old woman wearing a shirt bearing the whole trifecta: images of Che, Fidel, and Hugo. She eyed me skeptically, if for no other reason than I wore a plain blue shirt.

The fact that this was going to be more pep rally than open-minded inquiry was underscored by the crowd’s exuberant opening chants of “Socialismo, Patria, o Muerte,” “Venceremos,” and “Comandante, comandante, el pueblo está presente.”

Each table was assigned to “study” different themes of the amendments: social, economic, political, etc. I found myself at the “economic” table. With two of the university students hovering by, Sara, an elderly activist, started off the mind-numbing process of reading through the text of the revised language for Article 112 on “economic activity.” Then, her “comrades” at the table were called upon to make two-minute comments, with each person outdoing the last in lambasting capitalism and praising the wisdom of el comandante for creating a new social order. “Capitalism was about the exploitation of man by man, but now we are moving toward a model where community takes precedence,” said Sara, as everyone else nodded. Hers was one of the more nuanced views. An older man named Miguel added that it was important to give Chávez all power, “because he represents the people.”

Sensing that our table was getting a little too carried away in its revolutionary fervor, Daniel, our collegiate overseer, interjected the observation that, contrary to what the opposition claims, Article 112 recognizes a mixed economy (“founded on the humanistic value of cooperation and the supremacy of communal over individual rights”), and that Article 115 acknowledges the existence of private property (and the right to “use” and “consume” it, though the explicit right to “dispose of it” is being nixed).

It was then that Javier, a law student who opposed the constitutional amendments, approached the table, much to the dismay of the older party cadres and the delight of the chavista students. Daniel eagerly offered our “friend from the opposition” a chair at the table. Javier, unfortunately for his cause, looked like a College Republican, right down to his sports coat and tie. Given the floor, he launched into an earnest speech about private property being the cornerstone of all liberty—it was as if he’d discovered John Stuart Mill that very morning.

Alma, who wore a shirt listing socialist values, stood up and pointed her finger menacingly at him, saying, “Don’t you preach to me about private property—I have been working for 20 years, and I have been so exploited I’ve never owned my own home.” Everyone applauded her, and the woman to her right then rambled on about how the fact that businesses would charge Javier a lot more for his fancy tie than they paid to make it showed capitalism to be an evil system. That non sequitur begat another, as Miguel chimed in that Polar, the beer and food conglomerate that is Venezuela’s largest private company, should be nationalized.

Daniel winced. So much for the assurances about private property being respected. Not for the first time that week, I wondered about Chávez’s ability to control the forces his own rhetoric have unleashed, or if he even wanted to restrain them in the end. In his response, Javier, acting every bit the law student from the other side of town, repeatedly used the word pernicious, which sounds as haughty in Spanish as it would have in English. Could this guy be a plant, I wondered? He was such an embarrassment to the cause, I almost wanted to side with the chavistas. Then again, Javier’s performance notwithstanding, it is true that the most vibrant forces still arrayed against Chávez include a surprisingly diverse segment of the country’s student population, along with some of el comandante’s fellow military officers and the church. (Subsequent to my visit, the anti-Chávez movement gained further momentum, as did church opposition, and one of the president’s staunchest allies, former army commander Gen. Raúl Isaias Baduel, came out against chavista reforms to the constitution, all of which contributed to the Dec. 2 upset.)

After the assembly, Amanda and I made our way to the old Hilton hotel, which was recently taken over by the state and rechristened the Hotel “ALBA,” the acronym of Chavez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas trade initiative. The government announced that the five-star hotel would now be a “socialist establishment” for the enjoyment of all people, and indeed the lobby already exudes the gloom once associated with socialist beach resorts in places like Bulgaria. But credit Chávez with literally following Fidel’s Revolution 101 textbook: After the Cuban revolution, Havana’s old Hilton was quickly transformed into the Habana Libre.

We came because Amanda had heard that the hotel was hosting a conference of Cuban doctors, but they were nowhere in sight. The only convention we encountered was a Telesur gathering; that’s Chavez’s “alternative” hemispheric cable news channel.

We had dinner that night with Simon Romero and his wife, at their home/New York Times bureau. Simon is one of the paper’s rising stars and lesser egos. Recognizing the importance of Chávez’s Bolivarian antics, the Times moved its Andean bureau from Bogotá to Caracas not long ago. Most other major publications have stayed in Bogotá, so in some ways Simon has this whole alternative Bolivarian reality to himself. And, in case anyone in a position of authority in Caracas is reading this, I should hasten to add that Simon was very complimentary about the government’s gracious hospitality and equanimity in the face of tough, but fair, coverage.