Some friends invited me to the Comuna Cacique Tiuna, the big new housing development behind the Poliedro, in Caracas’ southwest corner. I tagged along hoping for some insight on low-income housing in Chávez’s Venezuela, and on the people who benefit (and suffer) from it.
Our contact at Cacique Tiuna was the head of the Communal Council there, a lovely, very friendly lady who also happened to be a hyper-partisan chavista. We asked her to introduce us to some recently resettled families, so she took us to meet the Spokeswoman for one of the new buildings, handed out to 50 families brought up from the shelter in the La Rinconada stands in the last few weeks.
Before we’d really managed to ask the first question, the building spokeswoman was off on a rant about how useless the government was.
“They told us we’d get to coordinate with the national government to decide who got which apartments, but it wasn’t like that at all. They just forgot all about the Popular Power (poder popular) and started handing out the apartments to whoever they wanted … plus they don’t really coordinate with each other, so you have two ministries plus the vicepresidency, plus another foundation – all handing out apartments here. Nobody asks for our opinion.”
I found this bizarre. I’d expected that maybe some disgruntled chavistas might take me aside and, under their breath, mumble their frustration about the government out of their handlers’ earshot.
But this wasn’t like that at all. The spokeswoman was ranting right in front of her communal council head, a woman with the power to throw her out of her apartment if she wanted to. As her chavista neighbors came in and out of the building, they’d stop by and join the little circle all casual like.
Clearly, Pyongyang it ain’t.
The rest of the visit was all like that: bitching and moaning about shoddy building work, bad urban planning leading to sewers that overflow, deteriorated rainwater collection leaving the area prone to flash floods, and the looming fear these recently homeless people felt that the buildings were so rickety that as soon as a hard rainy season comes they could be made homeless all over again.
Maybe a few years ago chavistas bitched about the government under their breath, but that was then. These days, there’s no taboo about it anymore.
Of course, the story is entirely different when you ask about president Chávez himself. Genuine gratitude and real warmth shine through whenever people talked about him. There wasn’t anything coerced about it, as far as I could tell: people seemed genuinely delighted to look up to him as their leader.
But the disconnect between the way they saw him and how they viewed his government struck me as … weird.
In fact, if I let myself tune out the sporadic incantations of personal loyalty to Chávez that would pepper their rants, I could easily forget myself altogether, losing sight that I was in one of the flagship projects of the Gran Mision Vivienda deep in chavista Caracas, and imagine I was listening to a gaggle of ranting escuálidos.
This gap between people’s perceptions of the government and their perception of Chávez isn’t new. Chávez’s personal popularity has outstripped his government’s approval for most of the last decade. But the gap seems to be widening, in ways that have important political consequences.
What you see in Cacique Tiuna is a new discursive standard at work, a set of ground rules about what is sayable and what is un-sayable in polite company.
Just as you would tune out anyone who said, “personally, I hate all niggers, but…” people in Cacique Tiuna are not willing to engage in conversation with someone who launches a head-on attack on the president.
It takes a real effort of the escuálido imagination to picture just how socially unacceptable that is in the social universe they inhabit. To East Side ears María Leon’s speech during Chávez’s Memoria y Cuenta might have seemed insanely extreme, but in Cacique Tiuna her outraged response to any direct attack on Chávez is just common sense.
Faced with this kind of knee-jerk solidarity with the president, it’s easy for opposition minded people to throw in the towel, picturing chavistas as an unthinking horde. Of course, when we do that, we fall directly into the rhetorical trap Chávez has set for us, and we shut ourselves off from the possibility of engaging a broad swathe of middle-of-the road Venezuelans who love Chávez and hate his government.
Chavistas are not an unthinking horde. You can engage them, critically, seriously, about shortcomings in the central government (shortcomings that they’re very lucid about) … but only so long as you leave Chávez out of it.
That, ultimately, is the price of entry into the conversation.
Perhaps you think that’s too high a price to pay. But it’s important to be clear eyed about what that means. You need to grasp that in demanding that Oppo leaders “take the fight to Chávez”, you’re demanding that they engage the 15-20% of the country in classes A, B and C at the cost of a fatal rift with the bulk of the 75-80% of the country in classes D and E.
The real fault-line running through the February 12th primary campaign, I think, has been between the three candidates willing to pay that price (Capriles, Pérez and López) – and those not willing to (Machado, Arria, and Medina).
And that’s one thing we can be grateful for: after 13 years struggling to settle this question, the opposition is on the verge of putting this debate to bed. February 12th is, after all, just around the corner.