The Book: Anibal Chavez…
Anibal Chavez does not resemble his elder brother very much. That the two are related only becomes clear when the goateed and jelled mayor begins to talk. He rolls out his words in long sentences without pauses and raises his arms and points as if he wishes to transmit information to the listener.
We meet on the shaded back patio of his house in central Sabaneta. His three cars, two of which are new Jeep Grand Cherokees, are behind him. Anibal appears bored. Throughout the interview he waggles his legs and keeps one hand on his cell phone.
“Chavez had two all consuming passions growing up,” he says. “He organized baseball games and read histories of Bolivar. He idolized our grandmother, Mama Rosa.”
Anibal has little substantial to say. He talks about the early life of his brother, increasing employment by helping Sabaneta residents start cooperatives, and a new sugar factory. Then he encourages me to photograph him making a speech to local school children in the local Plaza Bolivar.
As a functionary, Anibal seems uninteresting. I wonder why the old man who had called Chavez a “bastard” was so eager to help me meet him.
In The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela Fernando Coronil writes,“State representatives, the visible embodiment of the invisible power of oil money, appear on the state’s stage as powerful magicians who pull social reality from public institutions to cosmogonies, out of a hat.”
Millions of people may view Chavez as a hero. Yet all that he does is funded by oil. When oil and state power are combined one must be instantly suspicious. And Venezuelan leaders spending oil money to gain public support is not new. Chavez has intensified the spending and is using different words and rhetoric to describe what he is doing. But the fundamentals remain the same.
Yet it is also impossible to argue that he is not having more success than previous leaders. Chavez has become obsessed with a belief that he is the only one that can ‘save’ Latin America. Seeing the attempts of previous governments to harness the oil money into social works as having failed because of foreign interference, free market capitalism, and mismanagement, he sees his own brand of socialism as the only answer.
Why the old man had been so eager to have me meet Anibal begins to become clear after a few more days in Sabeneta.
Alfredo Aldana and Adrian Frias drive R and I to the outskirts of Sabaneta to see a cooperative called Madre Viejo and look at the river.
Adrian points out a plot of land taken over by a group of campesinos from the state of Apure. He says he knows the original owner of the land.
“He was my friend, but this is what the people want,” Adrian says of the land grab.
The campesinos have built small houses made from tin and scraps of wood. What they are hoping however is that Anibal will order new houses built for them as part of a government program to provide housing to the poor.
Further down the road, on a different plot of land, there are some of these government built houses.
A thirteen year old girl, the oldest person at the home we visit, says that the new house is “much better” than the family’s old house, a tin shack that still sits in the backyard. Many of the families have opted to keep the old houses for storage or as extra sleeping space. The new houses are made from brick, with wooden roofs painted bright pinks and yellows. The light colors cool the houses in the Barinas heat.
Recipients of the houses have twenty years to pay the government for the houses, with no interest.
“They are small, but affordable,” Alfredo says.
The houses are an example of the best of Chavez’s revolution.
It makes sense that the campesinos who took over the land we just passed want the same kind of homes.
A few days later I return without Alfredo and Adrian to ask the campesinos about the land take over.
“Anibal has promised the houses,” Rosa, a forty-six year old woman tells me.
She is standing in the shade of the surrounding Mora trees. Each family has built a wood and tin shack that they hope will soon be replaced with a government built house. When the houses will actually be constructed is still unknown, however.
According to Rosa, the campesinos traveled together from rural Apure to Sabaneta ten months before. A group of one hundred people, they made camp across the road from the land that they wanted and asked Anibal to expropriate it.
When he did not quickly do so they took the land over themselves.
“We went across the road and built our houses,” Rosa says. “Someone decided to investigate the deeds to the land. Perhaps the owner is claiming it illegally.”
After the land grab, Anibal met the campesinos and promised new houses. Now, every month one of the campesinos goes to talk to Anibal about the houses, but he has not yet agreed to build them.
Before being taken over by the campesinos the land clearly was not being used for anything. According to Rosa the landowner made a case to Anibal that the land could be used for waste from Sabeneta, but the plan never went through. The land is fertile; it would be wasted on a trash heap. Now that the campesinos have taken it over small gardens are being grown next to the sides of their houses and farm animals move around improvised pens.
“Are you scared of what the landowner might do to keep his land?” I ask Rosa.
“We are not scared because there is necessity in Venezuela,” she says. “If you need something it doesn’t matter. You have to get it.”
Rosa, she feels “better and more secure” than ever before in her life because in the future the land will belong to her six children and they have the possibility of having a sturdy house.
If Anibal orders the houses constructed.
And on that matter Rosa is unsure.
“Chavez is the best, but Chavez is in a palace. He doesn’t know how mayors in Venezuela work,” she says.