(This is a guest post by Venezuelan anthropologist Pedro Manrique. We haven’t done one of these in a long time, and I kind of dug it. I hope you do too)
Chavismo under the Orientalist Lens, by Pedro Manrique
Exactly twenty-two years after Chávez said por ahora, a student in San Cristóbal became the victim of an attempted rape in a state-run university campus. This ultimately led, on February 12tt, to one of the biggest mobilizations in the history of the opposition. An important part of the population is mired in a generalized funk. Venezuela is facing harsh times por donde lo mires. Still, why hasn’t this turned into a situation that realistically compromises the chavista system? I think the answer has something to do with an important cultural disconnect between the opposition and chavismo.
Orientalism is a term popularized by Edward Said, and it is used to describe how the West portrays and perceives the Orient in a patronizing manner. Commonly, this includes a conception of the former as less civilized, less educated, oppressed, and in need of guidance or assistance from a more advanced agent. When analyzing the opposition’s discourse, it becomes evident that the opposition constructs its idea of chavistas in a similar fashion.
This portrayal falls within two broad rubrics, which are perfectly illustrated in the words of the poet Rudyard Kipling, in his poem The White Man’s Burden: half-devil and half-child.
The first one refers to a chavista that is wrongfully intentioned. This applies to the enchufado class; that top officer at the regional Seniat branch that sent his kids to study abroad and travels often to Madrid and Miami. This rubric also encompasses those who are perceived as consciously taking advantage of social programs like the misiones, at the expense of the state. Those in this category are seen by the opposition as being aware that what they are doing is wrong, and still deliberately acting against their own moral values to achieve a material, immediate benefit.
The second rubric, the half-child, refers to a chavista that is not conscious enough to be able to discern between good and evil, thus supporting chavismo as a result of mere ignorance.
This infantile version of government supporters is described through two main currents in opposition’s discourse. The first one considers that some chavistas have been fooled by the promises of a better future. It believes that their judgment has been blinded by their taking part in social programs that benefit them and, consequently, is unable to acknowledge the overall conditions of the country. The second current explains that chavistas justify their sympathy with the government by associating it with socialism, and are incapable of separating the philosophical ideas which they adhere to from the physical reality the country faces.
Excluding the cases of the enchufados, which are by no measure representative of the majority of chavistas, the opposition fails to entertain the possibility that a chavista identity can be constructed and reaffirmed based on a true and educated conviction: that the system works.
The opposition conceives chavismo, especially those seen as half-child, as handicapped in a very general sense. This perception is heavily shaped by the experience of the upper-middle class, catholic, conservative opposition members who find themselves in power positions that allow them to act as agenda setters (I’m looking at you, Nitu).
In the past, this used to be done mostly through television. Now, since the government has a virtual control over it, the opposition does it through social media, creating channels in which its members communicate almost exclusively with each other in a sort of artificial vacuum, in which they have no contact with their chavista counterparts, thus not engaging with views that confront theirs.
The Western perception of the Orient was the product of colonialist thinking, which was constructed through the experiences of white European settlers that imposed a misrepresentation of the region in their own countries. The legacy of this representation brought upon today’s Orientalist thinking in a postcolonial context, which is constructed mostly through portrayals of the Orient in Western media.
There is, however, a fundamental difference in this definition of “the other” by the two groups (Westerners in the Orient, escuálidos in chavista Venezuela), and this refers to the power positions held by both the definer and the subject.
In the case of the West-Orient relation, the former finds itself in a position in which it can play an overall dominant role within the frame of its power relations. In the case of Venezuela, however, the opposition assumes this same instance from the weaker side of the power gradient. Since Chávez took over the presidency in 1999, their agency has never compared to that of the regime, and they have been rendered, in different degrees at different times, as disabled when trying to influence the daily lives of the country.
I believe the explanation for this lack of self-awareness can be found in another key element of Orientalist thought, which consists of the reflection of one’s fears and weaknesses in the conception of the other.
The opposition has seen chavistas as in need of guidance, and they view this as the only way to achieve emancipation from the ideological indoctrination of the government. The idea of the handicapped chavista that needs to be taken by the hand can be thought of as a projection of the lack of a paternalistic figure in the opposition, that serves as its face in contrast to that of the government, and that guides the way in its political struggle. Among all the leaders that, at one point or the other, have taken a central role in the leadership of the opposition (Pedro Carmona, Manuel Rosales, Henrique Capriles), none have had the reach and popularity enjoyed by the Supreme Commander, as he is commonly referred in the post-Chávez government discourse. The inability to produce a leader has been thought, within the opposition, as one of the major drawbacks in the constituency of an attractive political alternative.
Abre los ojos is a very common request made by the opposition. The phrase can be seen in banners at marchas, heard during speeches, and read in Twitter very often. I believe this metaphor of the closed eyes can be seen as a rejection to consider that the world exists far beyond the domain of the experience of the opposition. When demanding the other open his eyes, the opposition is actually asking them to put on their lenses, and experience the world through them. They fail to take seriously the idea of a chavismo rooted in legitimate ideological claims, that are understood by its followers, and that include, but go beyond, purely material motivations.
In the last broadcast of El Show de Renny, back in the 70s, the legendary talk show host talked about the meaning of being Venezuelan. “I am filled with my country”, he said. And I am sure he means right. The people who share his words as if these were only spoken for them mean right as well. For them, being Venezuelan is belonging to the opposition, the same way chavismo thinks accordingly.
Renny goes on, and adds “Our problem is not mental in nature; our problem is emotional and moral.”
It is true that, alluding to the words of the civil rights activist Assata Shakur, “nobody in history has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” It is also true, nonetheless, that the only way for the opposition to find itself with the capacity to gather the political support it needs to create a real legitimacy crisis in the government, one that allows it to take hold of political power in the country, is through a reshaping in the perception of its chavista counterpart, to be able to assign them an equal ontological value, and to act and react accordingly, based on these preconditions.
Paraphrasing Renny Ottolina: “I am convinced that the only way for us, as a country, to return to our self is through developing our conscience.” I certainly agree.