The Book Chavez is el maximo…Chavez is a bastard…
Myra’s words are simple. Yet her hope hits hard.
In 2004, I was outside the town of Ciudad Dario, Nicaragua, walking in the middle of the Pan American Highway.
Both sides of the highway were covered in men and women who work as coffee pickers in the north of the country. They were campesinos wearing the same worn clothing as the people I meet in Barinas working the land expropriated by Chavez.
These coffee pickers, however, they had been camped along the highway for days, in the middle of a march on the capital to demand their own land to farm.
Land in Latin America is almost entirely owned by a small number of elites. Without ownership of their own land the coffee pickers were forced to work for abysmally low wages and exist with no control over their own lives.
As they did almost every year, the coffee pickers were marching to demand their own land and thus the ability to grow and sell their own coffee. As always, their march was being slowed by local officials.
Within a few days it would dissipate.
The coffee pickers had no powerful allies. Their welfare was not attractive or beneficial to the people who held power.
A woman stirring a pot of beans pointed me to one of the pieces of black plastic supported by sticks that the coffee pickers were using for shelter. She wanted me to photograph someone.
Beneath the plastic a mother held a crying baby boy in an orange shirt. Doubtlessly, the boy would grow up to be a coffee picker like his parents. Generations of his family were most likely poor coffee pickers. They had known nothing else and had little hope for anything better.
Hearing Chavez’s words, that lack of hope among the Latin American poor has changed.
In 2006, riding the wave of Chavez’s success…the talk of revolution…socialism…the former leftist revolutionary and leader of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, was reelected president of Nicaragua.
From Ecuador to Honduras left wing leaders are again gaining ground in Latin America. By talking about what he calls “21st century socialism” Chavez has helped reorder the social landscape in Latin America.
Even in the United States, student protesters from my university once yelled at a military ship arriving in the local port to “leave the Bolivarian Republic of Olympia.”
Even if he seems wacky to the majority of the world and more centric Latin American leaders accept his gifts of oil and cash without fully trusting him, Chavez is having a very large effect, giving a sense of hope and empowerment to millions of impoverished people.
For the moment, what he calls ‘21st century socialism’ seems to mean heavy government subsidization, free healthcare, better housing for the poor, and a new school system composed of “Bolivarian schools.”
21st century socialism does allow for free enterprise, though it will be difficult on an international scale. The local is encouraged.
“Only you can see the water dripping from your ceiling. Someone else can’t tell you need a new roof,” says Ursula, a teacher at one of the new Bolivarian schools and the wife of Alfredo Aladana.
Chavez, he is the person many believe can help Latin America elevate itself out of poverty. Not that people believe their countries will become instantly wealthy. Rather they want to harness what they have and live defined by their own practices.
For people like Chavez, such an ability ended when the Spanish, the first imperialist force to step foot in Latin America, violently took over the continent.
Ideology and basic beliefs provides the basis for actions, and indeed the justification for many of them, no matter the effect. A few days after visiting La Marquesena I am back in Sabeneta. An old man in baggy jeans has a suggestion. “You must talk to the mayor. He is Chavez’s brother.”
He hops on his bicycle, a hastily constructed contraption on nearly flat tires, and pedals off. I trot after him. Seeing this, the man’s neighbors call out. “He’s crazy…crazy…” They rotate their fingers at the side of their heads.
I do not know why the old man’s neighbors are calling him crazy. Bicycles are the primary mode of transportation in Sabeneta. It is not that people do not want cars. The town is just very small. Also, many of the streets are dug up. For the first time in years new asphalt will soon be laid. In the meantime the crumbling piles of dusty old tar block off entire roads.
When he found me making a picture of his daughter standing in front of a photo of Chavez that her husband had put up in their house, the old man had said, “Chavez is a bastard.”
Then he suggests I meet Chavez’s brother, Anibal, Sabeneta’s mayor.
Sabeneta is typical of most small towns in rural Venezuela. Residents say that they like the subsidized grocery stores and easy access to health care provided by Chavez. A new baseball field with stadium style seating is being built. So are new school buildings.
“Chavez is el maximo,” people say.
One man sitting outside his store says that while many people in Chavez’s government may be corrupt, Chavez himself is not.
“Chavez is el maximo,” he repeats.
Even though all of Chavez’s social changes have not yet fully taken shape, there is still mass enthusiasm. He has warned people that “el processo” will take time. And because they see the foundations being laid all around them, people are being patient. After all, the callosity of the task that Chavez has designed for himself is the complete transformation of a society. Now, he is only in the beginning stages. His success depends on the future.
This makes him insistent on staying in power.
No matter other realities that are present.