'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Venezuelan Series (Part 1): Ciudad Guyana and "the New Working Class of Venezuela" 

David Hernandez and Francisco Arevalo move freely through the aluminum production facilities and executive offices of CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum with a relaxed self-assurance, a self-assurance that I have only personally encountered among the most indispensable employees during my work in California state government. Arevalo is edgier, more impatient than Hernandez, but, given that this seems to be his natural persona, I would have to say that he is, paradoxically, displaying a relaxed self-assurance as well by consciously refusing to conceal his true temperment.

CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum are enterprises in which the state owns a majority interest, located in an enormous industrial zone adjacent to the fictional city of Ciudad Guyana in south central Venezuela, a city that exists primarily in the minds of cartographers and travel guide authors, approximately 450 miles from Caracas. In fact, Venezuelans know that Ciudad Guyana is actually two cities, divided by the Rio Caroni River, the newer, modern (or is it postmodern?) Puerto Ordaz to the west, and the older, colonial (or, in its own way, equally postmodern?) San Felix to the east. Flights to Ciudad Guyana don't exist, as the airlines remain loyal to Puerto Ordaz. CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum produce Venezuela's most valuable commodity other than oil, aluminum, and my curiosity about it attracted me to the region, persuading me to forego relaxing in the Andes before the start of my Global Exchange tour in Caracas.

Just as names of cities on maps can be deceiving, so can the outward demeanor of Hernandez and Arevalo. Neither of them are bureaucrats in the American mold. Instead, they are political radicals who have lived long enough to see their vision of society embraced by the populace, or, at least by enough of it, as expressed through support of President Hugo Chavez, to now work within the economic establishment of Bolivar state instead of outside of it.

Hernandez and Arevalo, and the people I encountered through them, revealed how Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution is indebted to social movements in which people made profound sacrifices for over 30 years. It is an aspect of Chavez's emergence that the American news media ignores, because it contradicts the conservative perspective that Chavez is an autocratic military leader, despite his perpetual success in democratic elections, with no legitimate roots in the social history of his country.

Back in the 1960s, there was a Venezuelan guerrilla movement, inspired, like many others in the Americas, by Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. If I can ever find a copy of Richard Gott's book, Guerrilla Movements of South America, I'll read it, come back, and edit this post to include what I discover. For now, all we need to know is that the movement was Marxist, and that it was suppressed by the Venezuelan military.

I did not ask Hernandez or Arevalo if they were associated with either the armed or political branches of the insurgency. I'm not a journalist, and the question seemed, well, rather personal, especially as I had just stumbled off a plane and met them. I tended to ask general questions, and allow them, and anyone else I met, to determine the extent to which they wanted to reveal things about themselves.

After the defeat of the insurgency, the left required new strategies, one that recognized the need to organize people with an understanding that it was going to take longer to prevail than originally anticipated. Venezuela was developing a steel and aluminum industry to the west of the Rio Orinoco delta, because of the happy conjunction of the things required for the manufacture and shipping of them: alumina, bauxite, iron ore, hydroelectric power and river transport. Someone told me that the ultimate purpose of this huge, state sponsored enterprise was the creation of a Venezuelan automobile industry, a dream that was never fulfilled, although the desire to create industries that can transform aluminum and steel into processed, value added products endures. Harvard architects designed a new city to support it, Puerto Ordaz. Transformed downtown storefronts, large boulevards, and high rise apartment buildings, still evoke the midsized cities of 1960s America. Here, as Hernandez explained, leftists believed that "the new working class of Venezuela" would be created.

They were correct, but did they know that it would take decades? Hernandez, Arevalo and a generation of activists consciously educated themselves for factory work, so that they could go into the plants and organize the workers. Just like Cesar Chavez became a farm worker to organize farm workers here in California. Hence, Arevalo is a poet who worked in the plants, and listens to Barry White, while Hernandez worked in the plants, and developed a sociological understanding of the many types of people who migrated to this region to work, the fastest growing in Venezuela during this period. Hernandez often found what he accurately described as my "California English" incomprehensible, but we communicated much more easily when the conversation turned to the academic language of sociology.

With the population of the two cities growing from an estimated 40,000 in 1961 to probably over 1,000,000 today, through the arrival of people from from other states in Venezuela, including many indigenous people, as well as refugees from persecution in Colombia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, Hernandez observed that it was frequently necessary "to act without thinking", because of the the urgency of events. No doubt there is a rich social history here with many compelling stories to tell for someone ambitious enough undertake the endeavor, if it hasn't been done already.

As Gott relates in his most recent book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, the unions in these plants were closely aligned with one of the two parties in the Venezuelan "duopoly", Accion Democratica. In the Bolivarian cosmology, Accion Democratica and the other party, Copei, bankrupted the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a result of corrupt neoliberal policies. A political movement known as La Causa R ("Radical Cause") and the privatization schemes of the 1990s would sever this bond, accelerating the destruction of the duopoly itself by Chavez. But it never would have happened without the efforts of many people like Hernandez and Arevalo, people who consciously decided to align themselves with the dramatic changes resulting from the anticipated industrialization of Bolivar state.

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