La revolución como espectáculo

The Venezuelan philosopher Colette Capriles (Paris, 1961) has written a study of the years 1998 - 2004 that will serve as a useful resource for anyone trying to make sense of the social and political crisis Venezuela is undergoing today. Her book La revolución como espectáculo (Editorial Debate, 2004) [Revolution as Spectacle] is based on diaristic writings, letters, e-mails, contributions to listservs, and journalistic texts she wrote in response to political events in Venezuela. This use of an informal, loosely-structured format for her book gives it a flexible timeliness, allowing the reader to trace the author's shifting responses to political events as they occurred. The chronological order of the book (each entry has a date and title), and the brevity of the entries, at times gives the book a feeling of being a personal blog that has been translated into a book.

Capriles currently writes a bi-weekly column for the newspaper El Nacional and teaches in the Social Sciences Department at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas. In her column for El Nacional, as well as in a previous one for TalCual, Capriles has been one of the most insightful commentators on Venezuela's confusing political landscape. Part of what makes her book so important is the way it acknowledges the social and ideological chaos that has engulfed Venezuela, while never losing her faith in the clarifying power of reason. Capriles does not offer explicit solutions, but she does help the reader understand certain patterns of thought and their influence on all sides of the Venezuelan political divide.

Among the philosophical traps Capriles identifies in Venezuela is the unproductive reduction of discourse to the repetitive imposition of a single figure, who is either praised or derided, but who is enthroned as a vortex either way:

“I'm inclined to continue thinking that this is a dictatorship, and one of the finest ones, because one cannot stop thinking about Chávez for even an instant. ” (02.12.99, “The Paralegal”)

Perhaps one can read this brilliant book as an attempt to move beyond that cult of personality. While Chávez is of course mentioned throughout the book, Capriles does not linger on him. Instead, she devotes her energies to understanding the entire process he leads, and the effects he has created in Venezuela. Her study posits the notion that Chávez is, more than anything, a symptom of problems that have been an essential part of Venezuela since its foundation nearly 200 years ago.

Perhaps the central concern of this book is the identification and deconstruction of an apolitical, or anti-political, impulse that has taken hold of many Venezuelans in recent years. According to Capriles, one of the factors that has maintained Chávez in power is the deep-seated sense of mistrust of any type of political action among Venezuelans. This sentiment became exacerbated during the 1990s, when disenchantment with corruption and and a growing antagonism toward political parties led Venezuelans to dismiss the entire political sphere as useless. Seen in this light, the rise of Chávez can be understood as an opportunistic use of generalized discontent for the accrual of an autocratic concentration of power in a single person. Capriles identifies the recent political turmoil in Venezuela as a positive development in at least one sense:

“[T]he only thing that impresses me out of everything that's happening in the country today is that we've finally re-encountered our political culture, and Chávez forces us to think politically (in terms of power, and not exactly in terms of good intentions).” (05.21.99, “Politics and Anti-politics”)

This book aims to identify a dangerous retreat from the political sphere, a situation that has allowed a single ambitious person to monopolize an entire nation's destiny under the guise of liberation. For Capriles, the problem of dictatorship in Venezuela today cannot be blamed solely on Chávez, but instead must be acknowledged as a result of Venezuelans not taking the time to understand themselves within a historical and political context. Throughout the book, we get a sense of Capriles struggling to outline a political and social landscape that evades definition. If analysts throughout the world have had trouble making sense of events in Venezuela, so have Venezuelans themselves:

“There is nothing more difficult to understand than what is happening, and part of this lack of understanding has to do with the fear of seeing our country run in the wrong direction. But part of it also has to do with our own ignorance of our history and our political culture.” (07.29.99, “Consummatum est”)

As the book progresses, the entries become more pessimistic but also more insightful. For any one of us who has followed the Venezuelan situation in recent years, events have at times served as a profound education on the country's political and social character. The chaos, animosity and violence that are now fixtures in Venezuela reveal that we never fully escaped the caudillo era of the 19th century or the dictatorship era of the first half of the 20th. Chávez's genius as a political leader has been his ability to understand the crooked dynamics of power at the heart of Venezuelan culture and to exploit those weaknesses for his own benefit. His simultaneous use of democratic and revolutionary rhetoric allows him to portray himself internationally as a redeemer of the disenfranchised, without building the necessary infrastructure to sustain such an emancipatory project. Instead, what he has invented is a hybrid form of dictatorship that is strengthened by its wealth of petrodollars and an international stage rendered chaotic by the blundering actions and hubris of the Bush administration. Capriles defines Chavismo as a perverse phenomenon:

“Truly, I don't think there's any other political process as perverse as the one we're enduring. It's not just that the regime is not democratic, but that it claims to be so, and thus it mortally wounds the very notion of democracy.” (01.16.00, “Skepticism”)

As the book proceeds into the years 2002 and beyond, when the opposition to Chavismo gathered momentum, Capriles's entries become longer and more complex. But her prose never loses the colloquial quality that makes each entry feel like a conversation with the reader. Capriles expects her reader to be reasonably well-informed of events in Venezuela, but this text should translate for readers outside the country. While the book was briefly cited by Alma Guillermoprieto in an article on Venezuela for The New York Review of Books in 2005, it has not yet been translated into English. Because Editorial Debate is an imprint of Random House, however, it is being disseminated widely throughout Spanish-speaking countries. I noticed this book, along with several other titles on Venezuela from the excellent series Colección Actualidad edited by Sergio Dahbar, prominently displayed at most of the bookstores I visited in San Salvador earlier this month.

I'd like to mention one final point that Capriles raises in her book, and that is the odd but important fact that Venezuela has never had a substantial right-wing tradition. While Chavismo has employed, to great success, the lie that its opposition is from the far right, in fact much of the Venezuelan left opposes Chavismo. In many senses, Chavismo employs fascist rhetoric and militaristic methods while successfully camouflaging these essential components under a banner of progressive revolutionary imagery. In one of her last entries, Capriles explores this ideological confusion in Venezuela:

“Because the thesis that would be interesting to sustain is: it is not that there haven't been people who cultivated right-wing postures and who have acted in consequence, but rather that what has been absent is political representation and legitimacy, in other words, a democratic political space in which right-wing thought might be able to identify itself, perfect itself and be an object of scrutiny. And the polemical aspect of this thesis comes next: it consists in affirming that what has had representation in our political universe, and has come to substitute or accomplish the ideological function of that spectral right, is anti-politics and its twin brother militarism.” (04.20.04, “Where is the Right in Venezuela?”)

Anti-politics and militarism, then, are two of the symptoms Capriles identifies as central components of the Venezuelan crisis. In an interview she gave to the newspaper El Universal (available in this English translation) soon after her book was published, Capriles emphasized the role that political parties can play in countering the nihilism and fear that allow dictatorial impulses to thrive. This book is most valuable as a reminder that political engagement requires a historical consciousness. Capriles demonstrates for her readers how democracies always need citizens that are informed, educated and engaged. La revolución como espectáculo is a valuable analysis of the apathetic, anti-political mind set that has crippled Venezuela, while also being a spirited critique of Chavismo's undemocratic militarisim.

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