Saturday, August 21, 2004

August 23, 2004

The result of the August 15 referendum, said Jose Clavijo, the affable and articulate Charge de Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in the Philippines, "was not totally unexpected, even though the margin of victory was larger than what many predicted." [1]

The question posed by the Venezuelan referendum was simple enough and answerable either by a 'yes' or a 'no': should the mandate of the Chavez administration be revoked? Of the 14 million registered voters, 8.6 million turned out to cast their vote. The final tally: a 59-percent embrace of the Chavez government and its radical social program.

There can be no doubt, asserted Clavijo, a furtive smile forming on his face. "The mandate of President Hugo Chavez has been unequivocally affirmed." Likewise, the Venezuelan brand of participatory democracy, where the ballot seems only to be a first step.

Elected in 1998 and re-elected under the new constitution in 2000 to serve till 2007, Chavez knew that the referendum was but the latest in a long list of schemes hatched by the alliance between the Venezuelan oligarchy and the U.S. government to overthrow him. According to the new Venezuelan Constitution that was re-written in 1999 at the behest of Chavez, and which created the possibility of activating a recall referendum for elected officials, if 'yes' had prevailed elections would have been held 30 days after the referendum.

But Chavez had abundant confidence in direct democracy: he put his trust in the people by empowering them. "And they responded generously."

"I am pleased to be the first president to submit himself to the people's judgment halfway through his term and to be ratified" in office," said a triumphant President Chavez after the result was announced. Taunting the Bush administration, which had openly backed a failed coup against him in 2002, and using terminology from baseball, his country's national sport, Chavez likened his win to a homerun. "[T]he ball must have fallen right in the middle of the White House," said Chavez. "It's a present for Bush." [2]

Rather than unseat or weaken Chavez, which was the intention of the opposition parties driven by the Venezuelan elite - which enjoys a near monopoly ownership of the country's media, the referendum fortified the standing of Chavez and the possibilities of sweeping social change that his government signifies within and far beyond the Bolivarian Republic.

For many, the nature of the change that Chavez is driving has become the central reason behind the sustained attempts to undermine the Chavez government. The disparity of agendas is glaring. The opposition continues to promise, for instance, a return to free market economic policies, a platform welcomed by international financial leaders and institutions like the International Monetary Fund; Chavez is opposed to it.[3]

"We are building an economy at the service of human beings," said Nora Castaneda, the president of Banca Mujer (Women's Development Bank), of the Chavez administration's goals, "not human beings at the service of the economy."

For the first time in Venezuela's history, government authority has been established decisively over how the Venezuelan oil industry - the fifth largest exporter in the world - is to be run and for whose benefit. Oil money is now re-channeled towards financing immeasurable employment, health, education and literacy missions throughout the country for the destitute of Venezuela, specifically for women.

At least 65 percent of Venezuelan households are headed by women and the Chavez government during the drafting of the 2000 constitution ensured that this fact was reflected in Venezuela's framing document. Among it's progressive provisions, the constitution recognizes women's unwaged caring work as economically productive, entitling housewives to social security.

It was no surprise, Selma James noted, that in 2002 women of African and indigenous descent led the masses who descended from the hills to reverse the elite-sponsored and U.S.-backed putsch which briefly ousted Chavez, "thereby saving their constitution, their president, their democracy, their revolution."[4]

Over 250,000 children now have access to secondary education - children "whose social status excluded them from this privilege during the ancien regime." In poor districts, 11,000 neighborhood clinics have been established, the health budget has tripled and 10,000 Cuban doctors have been fielded to boost health care services in impoverished areas. There is also an ongoing campaign to provide citizenship to thousands of long-term immigrants.

"Chavez has based himself on the pueblo protagonico - the grassroots as protagonists," James adds. The iconoclastic Chavez "knows that the changes he was elected to make can only be achieved with, and protected by, popular participation."

And yet, despite his belligerent attitude towards the Bush administration, despite his glaring differences with the U.S. government concerning Latin American hemispheric economic integration, despite his government's openly expressed dissenting position on geopolitical issues such as the war on Iraq, the U.S. government continues to do business with the Chavez government and import 14 percent of its oil - equivalent to 1.5 million barrels per day, which was the average even before the election of Chavez - from Venezuela.

Once perceived by his neighbors as "a bit of an oddball," Chavez "now appears more like a Latin American statesman. Up and down the continent he has become the man to watch."[5]

"I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that everyday," said Pres. Chavez in an interview with the eminent intellectual Tariq Ali.[6]

"Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society?" Chavez continued. "I don't think so. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor . . . then I say 'We part company'. I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don't even like paying taxes. That's one reason why they hate me. We said 'You must pay your taxes'. I believe it's better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing . . . That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse . . . Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it's only a millimeter, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias."

That is why he won, Tariq Ali concludes.

Obviously so.

[1] Interview by the author with Jose Clavijo, Charge de Affaires, Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Makati City, Philippines, August 19, 2004.
[2] "International observers ratify Chavez's triumph in referendum," Humberto Marquez, IPS, August 16, 2004.
[3] "Opposition unveils 'free market' program," Roberto Jorquera, Green Left Weekly, July 21, 2004.
[4] "An antidote to apathy," Selma James, The Guardian, August 13, 2004.
[5] "Why Hugo Chavez is heading for a stunning victory," Richard Gott, The Guardian-UK, August 7, 2004.
[6] "The importance of Hugo Chavez: why he crushed the oligarchs," Tariq Ali,, August 16, 2004.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

August 2, 2004

Individually embattled, they swayed and danced together and celebrated.

In truth, the July 26 gathering was a menagerie of disquiet. Each Filipino who arrived that fine evening at the Quezon City watering hole called Conspiracy carried a roster of personal concerns in their hearts. But as is often the case, when called upon, the heart finds a way to expand beyond breaking point in order to embrace a few more causes.

Answering the call that night were businesspeople alarmed at the steep decline of the country's economy and workers facing mass lay-offs; feminists outraged over the assault of the Arroyo administration on the reproductive rights of women and couples, and artists, intellectuals and activists threatened by hectares of social ills.

In reality, the occasion chosen for the activity that night was for most Filipinos an arcane event, esoteric even for many of those who attended the activity: the 51st anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks - an armed push by a determined band of Cubans that launched the six year struggle which overthrew the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista, the dictator of Cuba.

But those who showed up did not exactly join the event to commemorate the Moncada Barracks assault and some did not exactly go there to register their agreement with Cuba's efforts to construct socialism.

The only thing on display that evening was the mambo of camaraderie - the extension of support by crisis-ridden Filipinos to Cuba - a small sister nation reeling from the hooliganism of imperial America. An extension of moral and financial sustenance by citizens of an economically distraught country to the people of Cuba who have accomplished much despite the inhuman 45-year economic blockade which the US government continues to impose. Illiteracy was eradicated a long time ago in Cuba, where the net primary school enrollment for girls and boys reached 100 percent in 1997, where the ratio of primary school pupils for every Cuban teacher ranks as high as Sweden, where the ratio of 5.3 doctors per 1,000 people ranks the highest in the world, where enough anti-retroviral medicines are produced, according to the BBC, to supply the country's AIDS patients, and where infant mortality rates are lower than US rates.[1] To cite a few trifling examples.

On through the night they swayed and danced in a celebration of defiance, with male democrats and activists doing most of the swaying, perhaps intimidated by the graceful feminist souls dancing to the fever-inducing music of Bo Razon's band. So much is freely offered, a saying goes, to anyone with eyes to see.

Zelda Zablan, spry icon of the University of the Philippines Population Institute and the spirited Mercy Fabros of Woman Health Philippines were on the dance floor the longest, followed by the graceful poet Mara Llanot, dance instructor and part-time Philippine history luminary Maris Diokno, and Princess Nemenzo, who danced a bit but applauded the loudest and smiled the widest. Young souls all.

The garden place Conspiracy was a jam-packed house and its main serving never came close to running out: solidarity, the antidote to adversity and despair.

The same spirit of generosity that drove a hundred animated citizens of East Timor - the world's newest nation, one still reeling from the genocidal Suharto-instigated occupation - to take part in the international day of protest against the war on Iraq on February 15, 2003.[2]

"There is no moral principle in [the] current desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein when [the governments of the US, the UK and Australia] felt no compulsion to overthrow Suharto, who was at least as bloody and brutal as Hussein," said the statement read in Tetum and English at the embassies of the US, the UK and Australia by East Timorese demonstrators marching with drums and music peacefully through the capital Dili.

"Suharto's dictatorship was eventually ousted by the Indonesian people, who accomplished 'regime change' through largely peaceful means. The people of East Timor made our own 'regime change' through the Popular Consultation," the East Timorese protesters implored. "The Indonesian invasion of this country resulted in massive civilian casualties and destruction. Yet, during 24 years of illegal occupation, neither East Timor's resistance nor any foreign government advocated invading Indonesia or attacking Indonesian civilians. The Indonesian people, like the East Timorese, were victims of Suharto, not to be punished for his crimes."

"After 25 years of war, the people of East Timor want peace not only for ourselves, but for the whole world. East Timor is a small and new nation, but we know quite a lot about the death and destruction that come with war, and we don't want to see similar destruction anywhere . . . Human life is too precious to be wasted for political or economic profit."[3]

"No War, No Racism!", "Keta Ataka Iraq" (Don't attack Iraq), "No blood for oil!" said their placards. For the survivors of genocide, the blows to Iraq were blows to East Timor as well. And so they swayed and danced as they marched through Dili and distributed solidarity, the antidote to war.

We must begin to live together as brothers and sisters, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. Or we can perish together as fools.

[1] "Learn from Cuba, says World Bank," Jim Lobe, IPS, Washington, April 30, 2001. "Cuba leads the way in HIV fight," BBC News Online, February 17, 2003. "Vaccine May Open Window in US Blockade," 29 Jul 1999, IGC News Desk, Patricia Grogg, IPS, July 28, 1999.
[2] "East Timorese People Demonstrate Against Impending War in Iraq; World’s newest nation participates in global protest for peace," February 15, 2003.
[3] Statement by East Timorese and Indonesia citizens organizations presented to the embassies of the United States, United Kingdom and Australian in Dili, East Timor, on the occasion of the International Day Against the War in Iraq, February 15, 2003.