With all the news out of Egypt last week in every major paper and streaming in live, the casual observer would easily be forgiven for overlooking a comparatively benign—but still marked—story: Wednesday’s global celebrations in commemoration of the 12th anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. In fact, it’s possible I would have overlooked the occasion too had we not received (from some mysterious email address) an invitation to attend the official celebration in New York at Venezuela’s consulate general on 51st street in Manhattan.
I almost deleted it upon receipt, but there it was, a day or two later, still sitting in my inbox and curiosity took hold. I called Venezuela home for nearly two years at the very outset of Hugo Chávez’ presidency and still have many Venezuelan friends both in and out of the country. What would it be like, I thought? What would they celebrate?
So I slogged down Fifth Avenue through New York’s ubiquitous icy slush and puddles to satisfy a nagging curiosity and observe the Bolivarian revolutionary revelry. The event was open to the public—no sign-in sheets or security checks—and only a few minutes after the 6 p.m. start time the crowd was already getting big. The celebrants were clearly mostly Venezuelan and it seemed like many of the early arrivals knew the consulate staff, but there was also a pretty diverse gringo crowd sporting patriotic Venezuelan hats and flags and bright red t-shirts.
If you happened to forget yours at home: “no problem!” There was a table of giveaway flags and apparel, and even hard-copy-bound books (in English) with select writings by el libertador himself.
Mr. Bolívar’s image was everywhere. The public gallery space where the event took place had only one type of art: dozens of hand-painted portraits of Bolívar’s head adorning every wall except for the one large photo of a beaming Mr. Chávez just off the entry way.
In fact, the scene was a meticulously choreographed political rally for President Chávez. Friends have occasionally recounted similar rallies (often described with consternation) and I’d seen a few on TV, but this was my first time witnessing one first hand.
By the time Carol Delgado Arria, the Venezuelan Consul General in New York, finally took the podium around 6:45 p.m. the audience was prepared for a long series of remarks delivered by speakers that included members of Venezuela’s National Assembly, the leaders of a Bolivarian civic group in Los Angeles, and even an adjunct professor from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
And then it began. Ms. Delgado Arria’s prepared remarks listed the standard litany of professed accomplishments of the Bolivarian government—from reductions in illiteracy, to poverty alleviation programs, to advances in health care and higher education. “Presidente Comandante” Hugo Chávez Frias, she said, had presided—against imperialist aggression by Venezuela’s adversaries—over a dramatic transformation in Venezuelan society toward a utopian Bolivarian ideal (not yet clearly defined).
The crowd responded with excited cries of “Uh, Ah, Uh, Ah, Chávez no se va!”
Judging by Ms. Delgado Arria’s presentation of the facts when she noted that the Chávez government has won 14 of 15 elections in the last 12 years, the crowd may well have it right.
But then thoughts crept back about my years in Venezuela as a young man, living with an ordinary Venezuelan family in the country’s interior in 1998. I sympathized with my friends’ frustrations with a political system that was then among the world’s most boring, ineffective and corrupt: power, shared diligently between two entrenched parties (leftist opposition legally exorcised), with periodic elections to check that box on the proverbial democracy checklist. They were right to feel deeply discontent and their expressions of hope at Mr. Chávez’ anti-establishment, anti-corruption, forward-looking platform were understandable. They voted for him.
But that was then, of course, and this is now. And the big question for Mr. Chávez (and for all Venezuelans) is: 12 years later, what’s really changed? There are those gains (some hard to independently verify) in literacy rates, extreme poverty alleviation and healthcare. Twelve years’ worth of billions in annual oil revenues appears to have made a dent there. But, to be fair, Venezuela’s neighbors in Brazil, Colombia and Peru have done pretty well in this department too in the last decade.
And, what about the state’s obligation to provide security to its citizens? And corruption, democratic pluralism, the foundations for sustained economic growth, the chance at economic betterment, and higher quality of life for all Venezuelans? What about food security, inflation, or freedom of the press and of the Internet? These have all deteriorated.
I’m not Venezuelan. The choice isn’t mine. But I do sometimes wonder what those same friends would think if a candidate were to come along now and run on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption, forward-looking platform, like Hugo Chávez once did? What would a younger Chávez have thought about today’s Venezuela?