Chavistas are those who read
‘As long as you read, the more you will know and the more you will liberate yourself.’ This is just one of the many pertinent quotations by Chavez that adorn the walls of buildings all over Caracas. It could also be the leitmotif of this year’s international book fair in the city.
Caracas has a population of between three and six million people, depending on whose statistics you want to trust. Whatever the true figure, it feels big. Many of its citizens live in the densely populated and sprawling ‘barrios’ (shanty towns) that cover the hillsides surrounding the city in tiered ranks of do-it-yourself constructions. It is here that support for Chavez, and now for acting president Maduro, reaches its peak.
The city is a veritable melting pot; not a cosmopolitan collection of separate peoples as many capital cities are, but a beautiful melange of black African, indigenous and Hispanic peoples, with little feeling of racial disparity. This teeming city is bedecked with posters, wall slogans, murals and banners commemorating President Chavez. But all this wasn’t just expressing mourning, but also a determination to maintain his legacy. Many of the T-shirts people were wearing bore the simple slogan: ‘Yo soy Chavez’ (I am Chavez), others confirmed their support for Maduro as his political heir and acting president until the presidential election on 14 April. Only in the middle class enclaves of luxury apartments and gated houses with their electrified fencing is there a complete absence of revolutionary slogans and colourful national flags – they remain quiet and sombre like tombstones in a cemetery.
Caracas’s modern metro system is a boon to commuters from the poorer suburbs and perhaps amazingly is not scarred by graffiti of any sort and the whole system is devoid of the commercial ‘pornography’ most capital cities display. Instead there are government advertorials and information posters reminding people of the need for a heatlhy diet or encouraging them to take up education or promoting campaigns against violence. As in London, pensioners travel free.
The government has also recently built a series of cable cars that allow citizens to travel from the barrios in the hills to the centre of Caracas. Beforehand they were oibliged to walk up and down hundreds of steep steps to shop or get to work, and those who were incapable of doing so were condemned to a life trapped in their shacks on the hilltops.
I was invited to Caracas for the launch of the Spanish language version of my biography of Friedrich Engels. It was to be presented at this year’s international book fair (FILVEN). Shortly before flying out, the tragic news of President Chavez’s death on 5th March was announced, so I arrived in the capital Caracas with some trepidation and also a feeling of deep sadness. However, I soon became aware that despite the expressions of public grief, many of its citizens were also imbued with a clear determination to maintain the momentum of their revolution. The book fair inevitably took on the obligation of paying due homage to Chavez and his legacy.
Venezuela’s annual international week-long book fair brings together publishers from all over Latin America, as well as, in this year, from Palestine and Iran. But this isn’t an event aimed just at the publishing cognoscenti, it is also a draw to thousands of ordinary people. Each day the venue in the city centre with its dozens of stands, conference halls and cafes was packed with people of all ages buying books with the fervour of the thirsty on discovering a well; most left weighed down with bags bulging with books. Who are these people doing the buying, I wondered, and was told that they were mainly Chavez supporters, ‘because it is the Chavistas who read!’ One of the Chavez era’s significant achievements has been the massive rise in literacy. He has said: ‘Our socialist revolution is peacful but armed’ – meaning ‘armed with knowledge’.
This year over 170,000 visitors came to the fair. It also boasted a full programme of daily events: poetry readings, discussions, dancing, music and talks by leading writers. The poet Gustavo Pereira*, who also wrote the preamble to the Bolivarian Republic’s constitution, was this year’s honoured writer.
In Caracas I met an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than 40 years, since we both studied together at the GDR’s national film school. As a young Venezuelan communist he had been forced to flee in the wake of the military dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez. He is still making films, but since Chavez was elected fourteen years ago, instead of having to earn his bread and butter making commercials, he has been able to make features in support of the revolution. While the fair was on, he was preparing a sharp satirical cabaret programme for television in the run-up to the presidential election, alongside his day job as advisor to the minister of culture. He was still in a state of shock at Chavez’s sudden demise and spontaneously broke into tears when talking about him, much as one would at the loss of a beloved parent. He had been in Miraflores, the presidential palace, when the coup against Chavez took place in April 2002 and had worked on his renowned, and largely unscripted, TV talk show: Aló Presidente (Hello Mr. President). He told me how Chavez remained unflappable even in the most extreme circumstances, but that he also possessed an amazingly perceptive political nous that meant he could consistently wrong-foot his enemies. Chavez’s immense capacity for working almost non-stop undoubtedly contributed to his sudden deterioration of his health.
When wearing the T-shirt our own Venezuela Solidarity Campaign had produced to commemorate President Chavez’s visit to London at the invitation of Ken Livingstone in 2006, I was repeatedly approached by strangers on the street who thanked me for showing support for their beloved president. With no prompting they explained why they admired him so much and enumerated for me what he had done for ordinary Venezuelans. Such spontaneous expressions of support for Venezuela’s socialist revolution is the best rebuttal of the western media lies about Chavez being a dictator, a man full of empty rhetoric, a charlatan.
While his coffin lay in state at the military academy, mile-long queues of citizens formed every day over ten days, so many wishing to pay their respect to this exceptional leader, often with tears streaming down their faces. Now his body lies in a specially designed mausoleum in the military museum that was once the barracks from which Chavez launched an unsuccessful coup d’état against the government of President Andrés Peréz in 1992. It is also significantly located on a hillside in one of the barrios for which he represented renewed hope and a better future. Alongside the museum, children play the national sport of baseball in a dusty, makeshift stadium to the sound of raucous trumpeting and loud applause.
I certainly didn’t get the impression that this government is a top-down regime or that a state-ordained mourning had been imposed on a reluctant populace. Undoubtedly Chavez had been a powerful leader, but he ensured that real power was devolved to the people and their communities. Everyone I spoke to emphasised how they had found a new pride in their country and a new dignity for themselves. They readily expressed their determination to contribute even harder to the revolutionary process. One young trade union representative came up to me at the book fair and asked if I’d be willing to address workers in the food production factory complex in Valencia where he works. He told me that although they were implementing socialist economic policies and factory management systems, the workers needed to develop a new, socialist culture as well.
His detractors accuse Chavez and his supporters of having created a crude cult of personality. What they fail to appreciate – or don’t wish to understand – is that there is a huge difference between a deliberate personality cult by dictatorial politicians and the genuine popularity of a highly charismatic and capable leader. Chavez hasn’t encouraged or imposed this so-called ‘cult of personality’ for his own selfish ends or personal enrichment, as all previous dictarors have done, but capitalised on his own undeniable personal popularity to implement a much needed transformation of the country.
My short stay in this vibrant city, left me in no doubt that the people here are far from disheartened, but are experiencing a new burst of life and hope. It is a country reborn and its revolution will not die with Chavez. It is he who has been largely responsible for returning the country’s dignity for the first time since before the Spanish conquest and of giving its people a vision of a truly democratic socialism; his comrades are determined to continue along that path.
*A bilingual edition of a collection of Pereira’s poetry – the first to be published in the UK - is available from Smokestack Books.