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Hugo Chavez's Return and the Venezuelan multitude (Read 537 times)

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Hugo Chavez's Return and the Venezuelan multitude
Jun 21st, 2002 at 8:09am
The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Hugo Chavez's Return and the Venezuelan multitude
By Jon Beasley-Murray, Caracas, April 14, 2002

So this is how a modern coup d'etat is overthrown: almost invisibly, at the margins of the media. Venezuela's return to democracy (and democracy it is, make no mistake) took place despite a self-imposed media blackout of astonishing proportions. A huge popular revolt against an illegitimate regime took place while the country's middle class was watching soap operas and game shows; television networks took notice only in the very final moments, and, even then, only once they were absolutely forced to do so. Thereafter television could do no more than bear mute witness to a series of events almost without precedent in Latin America--and perhaps elsewhere--as a repressive regime, result of a pact between the military and business, was brought down less than forty-eight hours after its initial triumph. These events resist representation and have yet to be turned into narrative or analysis (the day after, the newspapers have simply failed to appear), but they inspire thoughts of new forms of Latin American political legitimacy, of which this revolt may be just one (particularly startling) harbinger.

By Friday night, Caracas, Venezuela's capital, seemed to be returning to normal the day after the coup that had brought down the increasingly unpopular regime of president Hugo Chavez. In the middle classes' traditional nightspots, such as the nearby village of El Hatillo, with its picturesque colonial architecture and shops selling traditional handicrafts, the many restaurants were full and lively. Those who had banged on pots and pans over the past few months and marched the previous day to protest against the government seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief that the whole process had eventually been resolved so quickly and apparently so easily. "A Step in the Right Direction" was the banner headline on the front page of one major newspaper on the Saturday, and the new president, Pedro Carmona (former head of the Venezuelan chamber of commerce), was beginning to name the members of his "transitional" government, while the first new policies were being announced. Control over the state oil company, PDVSA (the world's largest oil company and Latin America's largest company of any kind), had been central to the ongoing crisis that had led to the coup, and its head of production announced, to much applause, that "not one barrel of oil" would now be sent to Cuba. Not all was celebration, it is true: the television showed scenes of mourning for the thirteen who had died in the violent end to Thursday's protest march, but the stations also eagerly covered live the police raids (breathless reporters in tow) hunting down the Chavez supporters who were allegedly responsible for these deaths.

Elsewhere, however, another story was afoot, the news circulating partially, by word of mouth or mobile phone. Early Saturday afternoon, I received three phone calls in quick succession: one from somebody due to come round to the place I was staying, who called on his mobile to say he was turning back as he had heard there were barricades in the streets and an uprising in a military base; another from a journalist who also cancelled an appointment, and who said that a parachute regiment and a section of the air force had rebelled; a third from a friend who warned there were fire-fights in the city centre, and that a state of siege might soon be imposed. My friend added that none of this would appear on the television. I turned it on: indeed, not a sign. Other friends came by, full of similar rumours, and with word that people were gathering outside the national palace. Given the continued lack of news coverage, we decided to go out and take a look for ourselves.

Approaching the city centre, we saw that indeed crowds were converging. But as we drove around, we saw almost no sign of any police or army on the streets. In the centre itself, and at the site of Thursday's disturbances, some improvised barricades had been put up, constructed with piles of rubbish or with burning tyres, marking out the territory around the national palace itself. The demonstration was not large, but it was growing. We then headed towards the city's opulent East Side, and came across a procession of people advancing along the road towards us, people clearly poorer and more racially mixed than the East Side's usual inhabitants. They were chanting slogans in favour of Chavez, and carrying portraits of the deposed president. This march was clearly headed towards the city centre, as were a stream of buses apparently commandeered by other chavistas. Neighbourhood police were eyeing them carefully, but letting them pass. If this number of demonstrators were arriving from the eastern suburbs, then many more must be converging on the palace from the working class West. We doubled back and tracked the march from parallel streets, watching as the numbers grew, as passers-by were called to join in this unexpected protest.

Meanwhile, we were listening to the radio. Some reports were arriving of the crowds on the streets, but mainly we heard official pronouncements. First the army chief spoke, and we heard the signs of incipient splits among the forces behind the ruling junta: the army would continue to support interim president Carmona only if he reinstated Congress as well as the other democratically elected regional governors favourable to the previous regime who had been (unconstitutionally) deposed the previous day. But if Congress were reinstated then, according to the constitution, and in the absence of the previous president and vice-president, the head of Congress should rightfully be next in line as head of state. Then Carmona himself was interviewed, by CNN. He declared that the situation in the city was absolutely calm and under his control, denied that he had been forced to take refuge in any army base (clearly CNN knew something we did not), downplayed any insubordination among other sectors of the armed forces, and announced that his next step might be to fire some of the military high command. Finally, the head of the national guard then pronounced that respect and recognition needed to be shown to those who had supported--and continued to support--the deposed president, Chavez. The pact between military and commerce was beginning to unravel. We decided to head home.

We turned on the television. Every Venezuelan commercial station was continuing with normal programming (and the state-owned channel had been off the air since Thursday's coup). However, as we had access to cable, from BBC World and CNN "en espanol" we started to receive reports of disturbances in various parts of Caracas that morning, and some details about the parachute regiment's refusal to surrender arms to the new regime. More mobile phone calls assured us that the crowd outside the palace was still growing, and still peaceful. The BBC had a reporter in the crowd, and spoke of thousands of people gathered. Darkness fell, and still no word from any of the national networks. At one point the CNN anchor pointedly asked its Caracas correspondent whether or not local television was covering this tense situation: no, he replied, despite these same channels' protests over alleged censorship under the previous regime. Now the self-censorship of soap operas and light entertainment stood in the way of any representation of what was slowly emerging as a pro-Chavez multitude.

Indeed, the private networks had previously protested loudly and bitterly about the former president's policy of decreeing so-called "chains," in which he obliged all the networks to broadcast his own--often long and rambling--addresses to the nation. Now the networks had instituted their own chain, the apparent diversity of variety shows masquerading a uniform silence about what was happening on the streets.

Then a development: suddenly one channel broke its regular programming to show scenes of the street outside its own headquarters. A group of thirty to forty young and mobile demonstrators, on motorcycles and scooters, were agitating outside the plate glass windows. Some rocks were thrown, some windows smashed and graffiti sprayed, and suddenly a new chain was formed as all the networks switched to the same image of demonstrators apparently "attacking" the building. But the group moved on and the soap operas resumed. Until a similar group turned up at another channel's headquarters, then another, then another. No more stones were thrown, but the demonstrations could now at least be glimpsed, in fragments (the channels splitting their screens into three, and, as one of the images turned out to be an image of the television screen itself, further still, into an endless regress of fuzzy images snatched through cracked windows and over balconies). A local pro-Chavez mayor who had been in hiding from the repression was briefly visible, apparently calling for people to remain calm. But no camera teams ventured outside, and we still had little idea as to what was happening at the presidential palace.

We were switching rapidly between channels: to CNN and the BBC at the top of the hour, and then through the various commercial channels to try to see at least a partial view of the multitude that must now be on the streets. The international channels were showing footage shot during the day, of police repression of protests in the poorer neighbourhoods--the footage was out there, but had not been screened or discussed on any private channels. At around 10:30pm, on one of these searches through the cable stations, we saw a channel that had been dark had now come back to life. A friend phoned almost immediately: "Are you watching channel eight?" Yes, we were. State television had, amazingly, come back onto the airwaves.

The people who had taken over the state television station were clearly improvising, desperately. The colour balance and contrast of these studio images was all wrong, the cameras held by amateur hands, and only one microphone seemed to be working. Those behind the presenters' desk were nervous, one fiddling compulsively with something on the desk, another shaking while holding the microphone, but there they were: a couple of journalists, a "liberation theology" priest, and a minister and a congressman from the previous regime. The minister spoke first, and very fast. She gave a version of the violent end to Thursday's march that differed absolutely from the narrative the media had put forward to justify the coup that had followed: the majority of the dead had been supporters of Chavez (not opposition protesters), and the snipers firing upon the crowds were members of police forces not under the regime's control. Moreover, the former president had not resigned; he was being held against his will at a naval base on an island to the north. The current president, Carmona, was illegitimate head of a de facto regime that was product of a military coup. Thousands of people were on the streets outside the presidential palace demanding Chavez's return. A counter-narrative was emerging.

The congressman appealed directly to the owners and managers of other television stations to portray what was happening in Caracas. No change on those other channels, however, most of which had returned to their regular programming. And then the state channel went off the air.

Over the next few hours, channel eight would go on and off the air several times. Each time the immediate fear was that it had been forcibly closed down again; each time, it turned out that technical problems were to blame as the channel was making do with a team unaccustomed to the equipment. Several times the channel attempted to show images from inside the presidential palace, but these were eventually successfully screened first on CNN: the "guard of honour" defending the palace was declaring its loyalty to Chavez. Later, around 1am, amid the confusion, we saw pictures of the vice-president, Diosdado Cabello, inside the palace, being sworn in as president. Venezuela now had three presidents simultaneously: Hugo Chavez, Pedro Carmona, and Cabello. The situation was extremely confused, the majority of the channels were still transmitting none of this, and rumours reported on the BBC suggested that two of the three--Carmona as well as Chavez--were currently being detained by different sectors of the armed forces. But the balance of power seemed to have shifted to supporters of the previous regime. The only question remaining, the questioned posed by the thousands at the gates of the presidential palace and still besieging the private television stations (by now some had been forced to interview spokespeople from the crowd, while at least one had simply switched to the feed provided by channel eight), was: would we see Chavez?

And so the apparently unthinkable happened. As all the armed forces as well as the seat of power effectively passed back to the control of those loyal to the deposed regime, shortly before 3am, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, returned to the presidential palace, mobbed as soon as he left his helicopter by the thousands of supporters who were now in a state of near delirium. All the television stations were now running the images provided by channel eight--a new chain had formed, as commercial television lapsed into a new form of stunned silence. The president returned to the office from which he had been broadcasting on Thursday afternoon, when he attempted to close down the private stations and as the coup was unfolding. This time, however, he was no longer alone behind his desk, but flanked by most of his ministers and in a room crowded with people, buzzing with excitement and emotion. We turned the television off.

Today the fall-out from this revolt is far from clear, just as the partial, confused television images have yet to be re-written as linear, coherent newspaper narrative. What is becoming clearer are the lineaments of the coup that the revolt overthrew--though even here rumours abound, such as the notion that it had been planned for three months, or about the extent of possible US involvement. If it had been planned for three months, then it was badly planned over that time: above all, those who led the coup were always uncertain as to whether or not they wished to present the coup for what it was. Had they decided to go through unashamedly with a coup d'etat (in, for instance, the Pinochet style), they would have been more thorough-going and widespread in their repression (though as it was, more people were killed during the illegitimate regime's brief existence than were killed in Thursday's demonstration, let alone by Chavez's security forces over the past three years); they would have detained more chavistas, rather than leaving key (former) ministers to pay a part in the revolt (though as it was, they used extreme force in raiding several ministers' homes, and detained, for instance, up to sixty people at the country's largest university); and they would have decisively secured the state television and no doubt imposed a state of siege. Yet had they decided to preserve at least a facade of legitimacy, they would have made some effort to extract some kind of (written or televised) resignation from Chavez, would have not dissolved the Congress, would have not detained and stripped of power (democratically elected) provincial governors, and hence would not have so utterly breached the constitution.

As it was, the pact between military and business that engineered the coup was weak, and could survive only through repression or apathy. But the military was split, and (especially) the front-line forces unwilling to go through with repression--even while the business component refused to negotiate with the other anti-Chavez sectors of society, nominating a cabinet almost exclusively composed of figures from the extreme right. More importantly still, the coup plotters were surprised to discover that they were received not with apathy, but with an extraordinary and near-spontaneous multitudinous insurrection.

The fate of Chavez's government, and indeed also of Chavez himself, remains uncertain. Support for what was once an overwhelmingly popular regime had been in steady decline, in part as a result of a relentless assault by both the press and the television networks, but also because it had so far failed to achieve its stated aim of transforming what, for all its oil resources, is still a country with considerable poverty. Now (despite an initial concession of reversing the interventions in PDVSA that had triggered the most recent convulsion), Chavez still has a large proportion of the middle classes firmly set against him, people who supported the coup; he must negotiate with them without at the same time betraying--and indeed while starting to fulfil--the desires of the multitude that overthrew it. The government has a golden opportunity--it is now more clearly legitimate than at any time since its auspicious beginnings (when it had 80% support in the polls), whereas the commercial media that so fomented his downfall are patently in disgrace. Yet the government could so easily blow that opportunity, especially if it continues (as before the coup) to depend all too much on the figure of the president himself, at best a maverick, at worst authoritarian in style (and probably in fact quite incompetent), whose personal charisma is already lost on the middle classes. As Chavez's personalism allows for no competition, it leaves few alternatives to those who believe in the generally progressive causes advanced (if intermittently) by his government. "Chavismo" itself came to create a political vacuum that briefly allowed the far right pact of arms and commerce to take control.

In the event, however, the multitude came to fill that political vacuum--silently at first, almost invisibly, at the margins of the media. Though Chavez (and chavismo) claims to represent that multitude, yesterday's insurrection should be the signal that the regime is in the end dependent upon (constituted by) that multitude. Chavez should not repeat the mistake--made both by the nineteenth-century liberators he reveres and the early twentieth-century populists he resembles--that he can serve as a substitute for that multitude, or that he can masquerade their agency as his own. For in the tumultuous forty-eight hours in which the president was detained, it became clear that "chavismo without Chavez" has a power all of its own, apt to surprise any confused attempt at representation.

Thanks to that multitude, Venezuela continues to constitute a dissident exception to the contemporary prevalence of a neoliberalism that has only accentuated the divide between rich and poor throughout Latin America. It is not so much, perhaps, that Chavez demonstrates that other models are possible--though his unpredictable foreign policy (embracing figures as diverse as Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro), as well as his more coherent attempts to make OPEC a force of third world producers allied against a global system heavily weighted in favour of first world consumers, do help to suggest that another form of globalisation might be imagined. Rather, it is that the multitude suggests another possible, liberatory, side to the almost complete breakdown of any semblance of a social pact that characterises the Latin American "mainstream."

One sign of this breakdown is the perceived dramatic rise in delinquency or common crime--Caracas is a city that abounds with a surplus of security devices (people are weighed down by the number of keys required to operate lifts and open doors, gates, and pass through other protective cordons) that regulate the middle class's comings and goings in line with this fear of latent social disorder. But yesterday's events suggest another side to this apparent disorder, both on the one hand that it is a criminological demonisation of a sector of society that (it is presumed) has to be systematically cleansed from social spaces; and on the other that it is a glimpse of a desire to go beyond such enclosures. The criminalisation of mobility is a reaction to a force that no longer "knows its place." Another sign of this breakdown is the withdrawal of any popular legitimation for political systems--the clamour in Peru, Argentina, and now Venezuela (among other countries) has been against politicians of any kind, all of whom are regarded as equally corrupt, equally inefficient, and equally inadequate to the needs and demands of the multitude. But the breakdown of any representation of yesterday's insurrection might also point towards a politics that is itself beyond representation, beyond a set of systematic substitutions of people for politicians.

Venezuela's coup, and the revolt that overturned it, constitute simply another sign of the disappearance of the former contract (however illusory that contract may have been) between people and nation. Hugo Chavez tried to reconstruct that contract by televisual means, but the medium itself (unsuited to such simple narratives) rebelled against him, and it will continue to do so. The current regime has legitimacy, but this legitimacy does not come from paraded invented rituals for the cameras; it comes from the multitude's constituent power. And the multitude is also waiting for other alternatives, and other possibilities.

Jon Beasley-Murray is a lecturer at the University of Manchester

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