Monthly Archives: March 2013

No middle ground on Chávez legacy

John Minns posted this from Buenos Aires

In death, Hugo Chávez has as much capacity to stir passions as in life. On the first day after the death the press in Argentina, as in much of Latin America, mostly adopted a respectful tone, often noting “problems” and “differences”, but reserving harsher criticism. Within 24 hours, the divisions over the appropriate economic and political model for Latin America – debates at  which Venezuela under Chávez was at the heart – re-emerged.
The conservative press – in Argentina led by the viciously anti-government Clarin – returned to strong criticism of his record – especically on questions of democracy. This is not surprising since it has been warning constantly that Argentina under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is actually becoming Venezuela and headed towards dictatorship.
The pro-government press – such as the completely uncritical Página 12 – has concentrated on the positive achievements of Chávez in reducing poverty and improving education for the masses.
The government itself declared three days of national mourning.
Professor Steve Ellner writing from Venezuela will be an ANCLAS Visiting Fellow in Second Semester of 2013. In this article he has produced a balanced summary of the Chávez years and the likely possibilities for Venezuela after his passing.
The website:

John Minns

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Captain Pantoja and instrumental rationality: a feminist critique

(On the occasion of the International Day of Women, March 8th)
By Eugenia Demuro
This text represents the views of the individual author, and not of ANCLAS

On 28 of February 2013, ANCLAS, along with the Embassy of the Republic of Peru, screened the first film of the Peruvian Film Festival. The Festival was organised to commemorate 50 years of Diplomatic Relations between Australia and Peru. The film screened was Lombardi’s Captain Pantoja and The Special Services (Pantaleón y las visitadoras, 2000), based on the homologous novel by the Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.  I must admit that I have not read Vargas Llosa’s novel and therefore will limit my reflections to Lombardi’s film. These reflections, however, also serve as a platform to think about the role of art, and more precisely, to think about art as representative of a particular reality. Second, and no less important, is the question about by whom, and for whom, does a particular representation speak to. I am in this way grateful to the efforts of ANCLAS, and of the Embassy of Peru, for providing a context to engage these questions.

The film tells the story of a ‘straight-laced’ captain of Peru’s army, Pantaleón Pantoja, who is given the task of putting together a force of sex-workers, las visitadoras (or the special service) to ‘service’ the military posts stationed within the Amazonian jungle. Part comedy, and part drama, the story follows the precise militaristic approach of Captain Pantoja as he executes the task given. The film reaches moments of high irony and absurdity as a result of the quantitative and precise management of Captain Pantoja in his endeavour to fulfil the high demand of sexual encounters (or renditions, as termed in the film).

The film’s success rests on carrying out, principally and convincingly, a critique of the Peruvian Military, including some of its key organisational structures such as authority, efficiency ‘at all costs and under all circumstances’ and Machismo. Even when this is so, as I will argue here, the film’s critique is still carried out within a male-centric optic. To be blunt, the film is based, exclusively, on a patriarchal and sexist representation of women. The two options of female identities available to the female viewer are either as a saint (as in the case of the Captain’s wife, a ‘decent’ woman), or as sex-workers, whose only concern is to provide sexual gratification to men, at a price. There is a complete omission of the female experience, of the problematic of becoming a visitadora and working within a corrupt, male-dominated environment. There is no treatment of the motives, frustrations and aspirations of women as full-fledged social actors who possess agency.

I’ve asked myself several times if I am not simply reacting to the very element that the film is attempting to critique, that is, the patriarchal structure of the military, the hypocritical approach to prostitution, and the idea that women’s roles function exclusively (in the film) to service men. I’ve pondered, as well, on whether this is the actual critique that the film enacts. This is the point where, for me at least, we need to be critical of the text itself, or at least to posit the question: at what point does the critique of sexism become the reification of sexist practices through representation? What I am trying to get at is that a radical critique actually requires embodiment and performance. The critique of the military, for example, is embodied in the character of Pantoja himself, and accordingly, it is ‘performed’ throughout the entirety of the film in his detailed approach to making the sex-industry efficient and ‘militaristic’. In fact, the final note of the film, sees Pantoja (and his wife) stationed in a remote desert, where Pantoja applies his characteristic rationalising principle to a literacy program he’s been given command of. The critique of military authority and efficiency, and its reductionist logic, is thus embodied in the main character of the film. In the case of the critique to patriarchal and sexist attitudes within the military, however, there is no female character that embodies or performs resistance in any critical way. Women are mere by-products or bystanders in the culture of the military, and not just that, they are very ‘attractive’, naked, and ‘willing’ participants. If the film Captain Pantoja and The Special Services is in fact a critique, it is a critique from a male-oriented perspective, where women (and their needs, aspirations, motivations, etc.) continue to be consigned to a second plane. The film proves lacking in its capacity to give any kind of visibility to the agency of women, that is: to the representation of women as actors within a social, cultural and historical context. The only point at which the female characters take a stand is towards the film’s end, as they are attacked, and at risk of being raped by the ‘local native’ populations who also want their sexual ‘needs’ to be met. I will leave to one side the representation of the ‘natives’, although this is another completely problematic representation. If the women only react when they are under the threat of rape and violence, what does it say about them? And what does it say about the women’s attitudes towards the sexist environment in which they are contained? Does this in any way diminish the film’s critical acclaims?

While I appreciate, and share, the critique of the military, as a woman (and as a Latin American woman) I cannot find, in this film, a female character with which to identify. I am therefore forced, if I am to engage the film’s critical message, to assume a sexist male-oriented optic. Any film that demands this of its female viewers cannot be considered as a radical appraisal of a reality. This is where the force of the critique to militaristic practices, and to instrumental rationality, comes to a halting stop. The film is a critique from within a naturalised male perspective, what it lacks, is any true account of the female experience.

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ANCLAS’s Tom Chodor on Post-Chavez Venezuela

The Future of Chavismo Will be Decided in the Barrios as Much as in Miraflores

With the passing of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, debate has erupted on the future of ‘Chavismo’ – the political project that Chávez himself referred to as the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ Much of this debate has focused, understandably, on the successor to Chávez, the Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, and his ability to hold together the ruling coalition without the charisma and considerable political skill that Chávez possessed. Maduro, of course, still needs to win the upcoming election, but for many that seems a foregone conclusion, given the recent triumph of Chávez and the ruling party, PSUV in national and regional elections, and the goodwill that Maduro is likely to garner as the ‘Chávez candidate.’ This analysis is probably a fair scenario, though, of course, one can never have complete certainty in democratic elections.

Nevertheless, with Maduro assumed be the next resident in the presidential palace at Miraflores, questions are being posed about his ability to preserve Chavismo, given the cleavages in his own party, economic issues like inflation and dwindling private sector investment and the continuing polarisation of the country. Undoubtedly these are important issues that will play a large role in determining the future of Chavismo. However, one important aspect missing from the analysis, is the role of ordinary Venezuelans themselves – the people in the shanty towns (barrios) who constantly voted Chávez into power, and whose loyalty he repaid not only through the delivery of social services like health, education, housing and subsidised food, but also by facilitating and supporting a number of grassroots institutions through which their self-government could be fostered. These institutions – the communal councils, cooperatives or local communes – mushroomed in Venezuela under Chávez, and form part of the ‘participatory democracy’ model at the core of Chavismo.

Not much attention is usually paid to these institutions, primarily because they fall outside of the traditional institutional framework of representative democracy, leading many critics to decry them as clientelist mechanisms of distributing patronage. While there are undoubtedly problems with some of them – including corruption, waste and political subservience – (problems, incidentally, which the government did acknowledge and try to alleviate), it is also true that a lot of them have worked very well and have led to a flourishing of self-government and democracy at the grassroots level. Contrary to conventional analyses, the citizens organised through these institutions, were not always subservient to Chávez, as evidenced by the failure of the 2007 referendum on constitutional change. If anything, Chávez was reliant on this diverse and amorphous base, as it served as the force that pushed his government further towards reform and experimentation. The political awakening of this previously excluded section of the population could yet be the most significant legacy of Chávez’s time in power.

Now, however, with Chávez gone, the question is whether this experience has left a lasting impression, or whether the critics were right, and that these institutions were no more than structures of patronage. Thus, what happens in the barrios – within the communal councils, cooperatives and communes – is as vital to the future of Chavismo as what happens in Miraflores under Maduro. Will the social movements located there continue to be engaged in the political process? Will they continue to put effective pressure on the government to continue experimenting with social, political and economic structures? Will they continue to demand the further democratisation of the state bureaucracy and party structures in PSUV? Will they be listened to if they do?

These are all important questions to which we may get some partial answers in the coming months and years. There’s no doubt that there are countless obstacles in the way. But for years, Chávez’s supporters and detractors have argued over whether Chavismo is too reliant on one man, or whether it has unleashed something bigger than just the President. The latter view was expressed eloquently by one Chávez’s supporters during his funeral procession on Wednesday, when he declared to The Guardian that ‘the comandante is not dead, no, not dead. He has sowed something in us, the people, and that way he will live.’ In the near future we may get an indication just to what extent these words hold true.

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ANCLAS’s Carlos Pio on the death of Chávez

ANCLAS Senior Associate and UnB Associate Professor Carlos Pio has an excellent piece in today’s Correio Braziliense on the death of Hugo Chávez. You can see the full text in Portuguese through the Ministerio de Planejamento clipping site.

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Lula speaking on Chavez

While it is in Portuguese, Lula’s words on Chávez are quite significant and revealing, particularly with respect to how the two of them managed bilateral relations and sought to address regional poverty concerns.


You can find a shorter English-language print version in the New York Times.

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Chronicles of a death unforetold by R. Guy Emerson

ANCLAS Research Group

I was in Caracas mid last year, in the hope of seeing Chávez speak on May Day. However, with the President then undergoing radiotherapy in Cuba these hopes were quickly dashed. Regardless, I went along to the 500,000-strong rally to look and learn. I got off at the newly named Miranda metro station – in honour of one of the plethora of independence heroes frequently evoked – and immediately heard the chanting of the Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV).

Amid the fanfare, concerns were already being voiced about the effects Chávez’s absence would have not only on the May Day celebrations but also on the upcoming elections later that year. While hindsight tells us that Chávez would be elected for another 6-year term, his absence from the celebrations in May raised a number of issues that have again come to the fore in light of the President’s death.

1. Chavismo sin Chávez

After the main speeches I returned to my apartment in Sabana Grande, central Caracas, only to chance upon a Chávez look-alike. Walking the streets in his military regalia and red beret, he treated passers-by to Chávez’s customary hand signals and slogans – ‘somos 10’ ‘pa’lante comandante’ etc. While I immediately got my photo taken with ‘el comandante’, again with hindsight, the presence of the impersonator indirectly evokes issues of continuity in the Bolivarian Revolution.

Viewed historically, there has been a series of examples throughout Latin America where the leader’s death has not meant the end of the movement itself. The current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for example, is but the latest incarnation of Peronism, long after the death of Juan Perón. A similar movement of Chavismo without Chávez can also be foreseen. Such a suggestion is based on the level of social engagement amongst previously disenfranchised groups – a situation not unlike Argentina mid last century. The extent of reforms that have occurred in Venezuela over the past 14 years has not only enfranchised those previously excluded, it has also changed the political landscape of Venezuela. Demonstrative of this shift, even Chávez’s opponent in last year’s election – and likely opposition candidate again – Henrique Capriles Radonski has promised not to overturn many of the social reforms that Chavismo had developed. In the short- to medium-term, then, this suggests a greater sense of continuity than a radical rupture in Venezuela’s political trajectory.

2. The Genie is out of the Bottle

I was walking home ten minutes after having my photo taken with ‘el comandante’ when I noticed that the May Day marchers had actually caught up to me. Still with camera in hand I decided to stick around and see the first contingent or so go past. While I was waiting, a middle-aged woman ahead of the marchers came up to me, presumably thinking I was a journalist given that I was the only white man with a camera in sight. She began outlining how there were many more people in the pro-Chávez demonstrations than in the contra-marches on the other side of the city. Perhaps feeling compelled to convince me of the worth of the Bolivarian Revolution, she then went on to tell me how she had graduated from a series of missions, designed by the Chávez administration to educate those who never had such an opportunity. Her sense of pride both in herself and the Bolivarian movement was palpable. After our 2-minute conversation she left to continue marching.

Over the past 14 years conservative commentators have failed to appreciate the gravity of scenes like this and the enfranchisement of the formerly maligned. With Chávez often viewed crudely as an old-style Latin American caudillo leading a blind mass of people, his supporters are largely understood as misguided. What such perspectives fail to take into account, however, is not only the testimony of the woman I met, but also the popularity of Venezuelan democracy – which currently has the highest approval rating of any democracy in Latin America. What this suggests is that these people have not been duped. For the first time in 20 years they have a President who not only looks, talks and feels like them, but dedicated his presidency to improving their lot. While questions over the means – in terms of the direction and administration of particular policies – should be discussed and refined accordingly, the ends cannot be dismissed, nor derided.

3. Two Venezuelas

Later that night in May, the owner of the apartment I was renting came around. She wasn’t exactly dismissive of the marchers but referred to them frequently as the rojitos – the little red ones. Then after quizzing me about social safety nets in Australia, she described how a lot of the missions are corrupt. It was the usual anti-welfare admonitions you hear anywhere. She noted how people abuse the system, be they single mothers who have children for the sake of state support, or those that sign up for the aforementioned education missions only to take the money and never show up to classes.

While I found it interesting that corruption is now seen as a problem caused by the lower classes, rather than the robbery by the political elite – a common occurrence before Chávez – what the conversation spoke to was the huge division in Venezuelan society. Indeed, a number of conversations I had frequently turned to the comment that there is, in practice, two Venezuelas.

Looking forward, this may or may not be an issue for Chávez’s successor. Clearly, victory in 14 out of 15 electoral contests during his presidency points to a strong recipe for success. Any change on the part of the Chavistas, in this light, would appear nonsensical. However, Nicolas Maduro – the likely PSUV Candidate – isn’t Chávez, and may not be able to count on the level of support that his boss did. Accordingly, a greater level of not necessarily compromise, but conciliation may be required for the Chavistas to remain electorally successful. It should be noted however, that the level of polarisation is by no means solely attributed to the left in Venezuela. However, as those in power, a step in a more conciliatory direction may prove politically savvy.

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Post-Chavez elections in Venezuela — OpEd in The Australian by ANCLAS Senior Associate Sean Burges

ANCLAS senior associate Sean Burges has an OpEd in today’s The Australian discussing the role Brazil might play in ensuring that the presidential elections required in Venezuela after Hugo Chávez’s death satisfy democratic requisites. The full pre-publication text is below and the published version of the text is linked here.

Pre-publication text:

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez has just died after a prolonged battle with cancer. While his death certainly raises questions about the longevity and sustainability of his Bolivarian revolution, it also stands as a significant test of the democracy promoting credentials of Brazil and the two important regional clubs it runs: the South American political grouping UNASUR and the trade bloc Mercosur.

Venezuela’s presidential succession procedures are clear. Article 232 of the constitution mandates a new election within thirty days if the president dies during the first four years of their term. The question many are now asking now is if this vote will happen – vice president Nicolas Maduro says ‘yes’ – and how democratic it will be, which is open to debate based on past precedent.

Historically, a free vote on schedule would satisfy Brazil’s pro-democracy requisites. But, events in 2012 suggest Brazil may now be valuing the spirit as much as the process of democracy. Venezuela’s upcoming vote stands as a test of this new pro-democracy policy in Brasília.

On 22 June 2012 Paraguay’s Liberal and Colorado parties joined forces to impeach leftist president Fernando Lugo in a process that many in the region now call a ‘coup-peachment.’ Strictly speaking, the process was legal, but politicized to the point of farce. Charges were laid, a congressional trial held, and a conviction delivered in less than a day.

What astonished many was the degree of political pressure Dilma exerted in Mercosur and Unasur to punish the political factions that had deposed her leftist ally, suspending Paraguay from both groupings. Suggestions that she was simply playing ideological favourites were strengthened when Brazil refused to take a similarly strong stance against Venezuela when Chávez failed to take his oath of office in January.

Such criticism may have been a bit unfair and missed the nuance in Brazil’s approach. Brazilian presidential foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia offered the opinion, which became his country’s policy, that he agreed with the Venezuela Supreme Court judgment that as a re-elected president Article 234 of the constitution allowed Chávez up to six months leave of absence before a new election would be necessary. In an act of quiet bureaucratic resistance Brazilian diplomats pointedly noted that Article 232 still applied and that prompt elections would be required if Chávez died within the next four years.

With new elections now required in Venezuela we have an opportunity to see if there has been a real change in Brazil’s regional foreign policy to advancing substantive democracy or if the Lula-era tradition of selectively advocating a brand of pro-leftist democracy remains in place.

Make no mistake, the upcoming election in Venezuela is going to be difficult and divisive. The obvious strategy for Maduro will be to wrap himself in the mantle of Chávez’s memory while Capriles will likely resume his message of bringing Chávez’s social welfare policies to a sustainable path. All of this is an expected part of electoral politics. Where matters get tricky is the extent to which Maduro deploys executive presidential powers to artificially boost his campaign. One standout tactic from the October 2012 election was Chávez’s proclivity for mandating lengthy broadcasts of ‘government service’ programming to preempt television coverage of Capriles campaign events.

Another question is whether or not the military and security forces will take on the role of passive spectator expected in a consolidated democracy or if they will directly or covertly interfere with the campaign. Indeed, the temptation for political intervention by some sectors in the military will be immense if reports about their links to narcotrafficking and organized crime are correct.

Brazil has the back-room influence to prevent these sorts of violations of the democratic spirit of an election. Dilma as well as key advisors such as Garcia have enormous influence with the Chávez faithful. Moreover, Dilma’s 2010 presidential campaign advisors are likely to again play an important role in the pro-Chávez electoral push, fulfilling much the same role as Clinton campaign hothouse Carville and Associates did around the world in the 2000s. A behind the scenes steadying hand on Maduro-camp temptations to unduly exploit their position of power will be essential to the country’s future political stability. Venezuelans will know if the election is gamed, which would erode the credibility of a possible Maduro victory and further polarize the country. But if he were to win in a truly clean race it could create the conditions needed for a national political reconciliation. The same holds true for a possible opposition win. Even if uncomfortable for diplomats, helping to make this happen is exactly the sort of responsibility that goes with the regional leadership role Brazil has been claiming in South America. Post-Chávez Venezuela may prove to be Brazil’s first real test.

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