Alternative Universes Collide between North and South on Hugo Chavez Re-election

Quito  Landing in Ecuador after 11 pm and clearing customs, Hugo Chavez’s press conference was on all of the television sets as we exited the airport.  The first question I was asked as I headed for the hotel was whether or not I had heard that Chavez was re-elected.  This was big news in Ecuador, and I would dare say throughout Latin America where Chavez has been a defining figure for the last decade, who has walked with big steps throughout the region.  You would not have known that from reading the United States papers though.  The Times using a covey of reporters focused mainly on the opposition and its prospects despite what many, including even CNN, reported a surprisingly strong victory of nearly 10% over his opponent in a race that some pollsters had been calling even.  After a front page story on Sunday recognizing that Chavez’s strength might be the huge support for his social programs, almost seemed disappointed over his victory in their own brand of foreign policy.

No doubt there are serious issues in Venezuela that need to be addressed and Chavez’s health and prospects are absolutely a cause for concern, but it is interesting how different the perspectives on him and his election are between north and south.  In Bolivia recently with the Organizers’ Forum, we heard his name repeatedly.  People talked about “Chavez checks,” as they called them, of $10,000 USD each that Venezuela had given to rural communities to use at their discretion for economic development in their areas.  Both Ecuador and Bolivia have left-leaning governments which have been strong allies of Venezuela and beneficiaries of the better times when oil prices were soaring for Chavez so their interest was intense.  With elections coming next year for Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, it would not be surprising for people here to be looking for signs of which way the regional winds are blowing politically.

Without knowing all of the ends and outs of Venezuelan politics,  I would venture that there are still some things worth noting, whether or not the global south and the global north can agree.

  • Interestingly, there has not been one allegation about the election having been anything other than fair and above board, as opposed to the past where this was a constant refrain.  All reports is that voting stayed open as long as people were there and that the electronic system, though new, worked well, and gave no cause for any allegations of irregularities.  That must stick in some craws, I’ll bet.
  • There’s a global lesson in the chagrin of the Times’ story yesterday that people might in fact vote for Chavez in Venezuela because they wanted to see their social programs continue.  There are senior citizens voting in the United States who want to protect Social Security and medical programs.  Hello?  Why is it strange that beneficiaries of public services might make electoral decisions based on whether or not they believed government served them?
  • Voting participation rates of 80 to 90% in Venezuela which everyone concedes showed huge interest in this election make a difference!  This is part of the reason why Republican voter suppression efforts in the United States are so important to them.  If you keep the beneficiaries of public services away from the polls, then your opposition to public services has a better chance of winning, but if, as in Venezuela’s election, you turnout as much of the vote as possible, then the 99% of that country will raise their voices, leaving the critics to be satisfied with 45% rather than 55% when majorities are what matter in democracies.

Seems to me politicians and their parties could learn something important here about the connections between services, benefits, voting participation, and elections, but maybe that’s just me?

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The Strongest Community Organization, Bartolina Sisas, and the Union of Lowlands Indigenous People

Organizers' Forum Delegation with members of the strongest civic organization in Bolivia

La Paz   We were off to El Alto again for a meeting in the morning with the general secretary of FEJUVE, which is essentially is the largest civic association of united neighbors of El Alto.   Arguably FEJUVE was not only the strongest community organization anywhere in the province of La Paz, but also the country.  Frequently, the secretary would speak of the “glorious FEJUVE” and the fact that they “did not know the meaning of the word defeat, because they had never experienced it.”  This very charismatic leader was a force of nature, but also an unpaid volunteer leader only reimbursed for experiences whose whole life was building the organization.

The affiliates, the juntas had a dues (cuotas) system of 2 Bolivianas per month, but none of that supported the central apparatus.  FEJUVE was clear it was “apolitical” or nonpartisan, but was also clear that it would not hesitate to take money from the parties, but justified this on the grounds that they would promise nothing in return.  When I asked directly if they felt Evo Morales, the indigenous, forceful president, had delivered more to the rural areas than urban areas like their own, still fighting for water, lights, gas, road, and housing, he quickly agreed.  There were obviously plans afoot to up the pressure on the President.   More than any other group, FEJUVE was simply powerful and knew it because in a battle of social movements against the government, in El Alton, they literally controlled the high ground and the transportation choke-points.  In a country like Bolivia where  blocados are a very popular and powerful tactic, they were masters of its utilization and could ground airplanes, bus routes, and hold La Paz under siege when blockading transportation routes.  Right now there were 60 blockades ongoing around different issues in Bolivia.  Our fight tomorrow to Cochabamba was now packed because it was the only way out.  FEJUVE was teaching all of us the basics of the importance of tactical strength!

Next we met the most well known women’s organization in La Paz, which is popularly known as Bartolina Sisas, named after the martyred widow of  Tupac in a long ago revolution in her early 30’s.  The “technico” or staff member and the political leader we met with were very well spoken and forthright.  This is a national organization, CNMCIOB or the Conferacion Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Inigenas Originarias de Bolivia.  They were overtly the political arm of the women’s movement and more.  They directly thanked Evo Morales for the building where they were housed not far from San Francisco Plaza.  The political leader had run a project for Morales’ party, MAS, to get more women involved.  Most of their support came from international state financed NGO’s especially in Norway.   This was an interesting organization but seemed to be the closes to an classic NGO type, international/state funded group that we had encountered on our visit.

leaders and staff of Bartolina Sisa

We had a very engaging final visit with CPILAP, Central de Pueblas Indigenous de la Paz, which was seen as the 80,000 member organization of the indigenous people of the low lands.  It had been their affiliate, the Tippi, that was currently the center of so many stories we heard repeatedly in La Paz.  The much vaunted new constitution required consultation with indigenous peoples before development projects.  For some reason Morales had simply blown them off (another source had said he just didn’t think the tribe was significant enough to bother with), so instead of consulting where he most probably would have found support, he had bulled forward, and now this was a national issue, because the Tippi did not want the road through the park or their territory.  A road around according to Juan Miguel Suarez, the coordinator with whom we were meeting, would only add a couple of hours though might cost more around the mountains, while others had told us it would add 10 to 12 hours of driving.  Everyone conceded a north-south road was needed, but now it was “all bets off” and felt to be only benefiting oil development for multi-nationals and cocoleros growing coca for export for illegal purposes.  Morales had at first promised he would pull the road off the drawing board, and then once again reversed field and in January 2012 said he would simply consult.  The sides were now at logger heads and the Tippis were gathering arrowheads and stringing their bows.  It looked less than promising.

office of CNMCIOB "Bartolina Sisa" women's organizer

We are learning more than we could imagine from some meetings, and learning some things we did not want to hear from other sessions, but nonetheless we are learning invaluable lessons from everyone with whom we have met in this amazing country, where social movements are very powerful, one way or another.

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