Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela

This review was first published in Irish Left Review here.

Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela (Alborada Films, 2009) narrates Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution through Venezuelans living in the barrios of Caracas, effectively demonstrating the consciousness of revolution at grassroots level, while exploring and exposing mainstream media manipulation.

Drawing on historical archives, interviews with people from the barrios and expert opinions about Chavez’s governance and policies, the documentary presents a reality from Venezuela which is either concealed or purposely ignored by Western media. The attempt by Western media to isolate Venezuelans from the political scene negates the social consciousness of the people - an acquisition which, through participation in the revolution, has the potential to become irreversible, thus imparting a sense of inclusion and a resolution to challenge imperialism within the country and internationally.

The documentary explicitly shows the displaced narration of international commentary on Venezuela. Shifting from supposedly unbiased to promoting right wing opposition views from Venezuela, mainstream media has intentionally shifted the dynamics of the Bolivarian revolution from the people to the president; a view which is negated throughout the documentary. Chavez’s supporters are imbued with both ideology and commitment - an unconditional statement which affirms the people’s participation in socialism.

“Chavez always gave us what we lacked - we have a humane President.” Such a statement illuminates the contrast between Chavez’s supporters and media coverage in Venezuela, which inclines towards distortion - glorification versus demonization. The ‘enemy of democracy’, according to the right wing faction and the imperialists, is likened to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, struggling to create an image of a dictator alienated from his own people. In this crude propaganda Chavez is portrayed as a solitary leader. ‘The people’ are fragmented and magnified according to imperialist interests; therefore the opposition is given a vociferous front in order to obliterate grassroots’ support for Chavez.

Director Pablo Navarrete moves beyond these stereotypes to document a revolution embraced by the people. And, as portrayed in the documentary, Venezuelans supporting Chavez have no qualms about voicing their concerns over crime and corruption charges, which have proven to be a challenge for the government. The focus on grassroots’ support for Chavez, as well as their determination to participate in the revolution, give a deeper insight into Venezuela’s recent history and brutal state repression prior to Chavez.

While socialism was swiftly undergoing obliteration in the West, the social conditions in Venezuela necessitated a radical shift to combat right wing policies. In 1989, a rise in the price of fuel drove passengers travelling on a bus to revolt, when the bus driver shoved a woman who refused to pay the extra charge on fares. The Caracazo uprising was met with violence on behalf of the government, with thousands ending up murdered by gunfire from security forces in Caracas.

Three year later, in 1992, Chavez orchestrated an unsuccessful coup against the Perez government. Addressing the nation upon his arrest, Chavez became a household name thanks to a short broadcast advising the people that ” ‘por ahora’ (for now), the objectives we set ourselves have not been achieved in the capital city. That is to say, here in Caracas, we did not manage to take power. You did very well over there but now it is time to prevent further bloodshed. It is now time to reflect. New opportunities will arise. This country must, once and for all, head towards a better future.” Por ahora became a slogan for Chavez’s supporters. In 1998 Chavez was elected president of Venezuela, bringing an end to decades of violence.

The short lived, US aided, April 11, 2002 military coup against Chavez was drenched in media manipulation. Right wing media were transformed into political parties, providing repetitive broadcasts of anti-Chavez propaganda, demanding Chavez’s resignation, calling upon opposition supporters to march to Miraflores and reporting deaths during clashes between Chavez supporters and the opposition before their occurrence. Whilst the Church in Venezuela blessed the coup and the constitution was abolished, Chavez’s supporters took to the streets, clamouring for his return and defending their rights. In less than 48 hours, Chavez was reinstated in his role as president.

The documentary demonstrates the manner in which social justice in Venezuela has transcended Chavez’s political rhetoric, becoming ingrained in people’s consciousness. Participation in communal councils brought social actors together, establishing a form of governance over community functions which still battles vestiges of imperialism, clientelism and corruption. On a socio-cultural level, the hip hop scene in Venezuela has flourished, becoming a means of expression against bureaucracy and corruption. A striking scene in the documentary is hip hop group Area 23 rapping against government inconsistencies in Chavez’s presence during a television programme.

Venezuela has also emerged as a world leader in combating US imperialism, constantly denouncing the War on Terror and confronting global capitalism. Navarrete provides a lucid contrast between imperialist and socialist philosophy on freedom and democracy. A clip of Chavez holding up a newspaper depicting civilian victims of the War on Terror stating “Seek out the terrorists, but not like this,” highlights the social consciousness of a nation which has applied democracy without resorting to indiscriminate bloodshed.

Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela defines an alternative narration which puts grassroots support for the Bolivarian Revolution back into the scene; people, ideology and activism abolishing the imposition of leadership cult - a testimony of imparting and consolidating revolution within the people.

For further information about Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela, visit http://www.alborada.net/itr.film News about Alborada Films’ forthcoming documentary, Hip Hop Revolucion may be accessed at http://www.alborada.net/hhr.film

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fragile States: War and Conflict in the Modern World

The Congo, Haiti and Afghanistan: Fragile States and the maintenance of violence 

This review was first published in LSE Review of Books here.

Fragile States: War and Conflict in the Modern World. Lothar Brock, Hans-Henrik Holm, Georg Sørensen & Michael Stohl. Polity Press. January 2012.
Fragile States: War and Conflict in the Modern World assesses war and its implications through a detailed account of history, colonialism and institutions such as the United States, NATO and the United Nations. Based on the premise that fragile statehood and violent conflict are interdependent, the book delves into the impact caused by exploitation within fragile states and by decisions made within the international community.

The authors dispel the definition of war as a solely hostile conflict between nations. They note that since 1989, 120 out of 128 armed conflicts have been caused by intrastate violence. The book brings forward the characteristics of fragile states and attempts to analyse the role of foreign intervention. Ultimately, it brings to light the contrast between limited action and the further enhancement of conflict when taking sides in a civil war.

The book portrays the monopoly of violence as a crucial element in maintaining state fragility by focussing on three states – The Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Afghanistan. Many factors such as religious and ethnic divides, geopolitics and colonialism, have aided in undermining state legitimacy and the conflicts are exacerbated by outside intervention. This is especially true if a state is rich in natural resources or provides a strategic geographic location. The book matches also these countries against more successful states like Botswana and Costa Rica to further understand what constitutes state failure and why some countries have avoided such a fate.

Various political systems in pre colonial Africa failed to define territorial control, with tribes and local communities taking precedence over nations. With colonial rule, tyranny became the means through which economic sustainability, welfare, and even culture were manipulated.
The Democratic Republic of Congo suffered from the Belgian colonial legacy of exploiting Congolese in slave labour. The colonialists failed to provide any form of government structure, resorting to violence to achieve social control. In the aftermath of colonialism, Congolese society retained violent practices over the country, resulting in the murder of Patrice Lumumba and a US aided military coup which installed Mobutu as president.

The Congo’s natural resources were swiftly considered the ruler’s possession – reminiscent of the colonialist era. Mobutu relied heavily on the West to control extra-territorial violence and the West fulfilled this demand due to a reciprocal dependence, this time on an anti Soviet ally. At the end of the Cold War the West retracted its support, citing democracy rhetoric.

In Haiti, US occupation failed to address political and economic problems. Following the Duvaliers’ rule, military coups and political unrest, Haiti remained politically and economically fragile as well as heavily dependent on the international community. The structure of the political elite retained violence as a method of control, ushering in a conflict between emancipation and exploitation. Both culture and statehood remain weak, with social control problems stemming from an elitist predatory behaviour towards the poor.

Afghanistan’s lack of central government throughout history culminated in a reinforcement of tribal identity and territorial control. After Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, militias fought for state control, resulting in a civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Despite Taliban control of many parts of Afghanistan, unity was never achieved. After the US invasion of Afghanistan following September 11, the US supported government of Hamid Karzai failed to achieve any form of control over the country. Warlords mistrusted the concept of state, fearing their leadership legitimacy would be undermined. Afghanistan became embroiled in a system where various powerful figures indulge in corruption to consolidate power – a weak state which is manifested in the strength of Afghan tribes.

From the Cold War era to post September 11 politics, the book’s detailed overview of history shows how the international community’s perception of fragile states has evolved from the discourse of instability within the state to that of security politics. During the Cold War and its aftermath, a series of military coups aided by the CIA were imposed on various Latin American countries, under the guise of eliminating the communist threat. In post September 11, foreign intervention has largely been manipulated by governments and media, using the nature of violence within fragile states to justify some form of intervention.

While fragile states share certain traits, such as formal sovereignty, self-serving elites and a form of external domination, recent intervention by the international community has also followed a certain path which justifies war by citing humanitarian concerns. George Bush’s War on Terror was replete with references to freedom, human rights and democracy, despite military intervention in Iraq carried out under false claims of mass destruction weapons. In turn, media manipulation of events, such as the fabricated story of Iraqi babies removed from incubators and being left to die on the hospital floors served to sway public sentiment and consolidate the image of good versus evil.

The authors define how UN Security Council resolutions are also failing to provide a framework of what constitutes protection and humanitarian intervention, however the text would have benefited from a deeper insight into the consequences of foreign intervention and the responsibility to protect. While acknowledging that the international community does not deal with fragile states in a consistent manner, the humanitarian cost is not adequately expounded upon. It should be worth noting that any plundering of resources by foreign powers ultimately divests a community of independence.

An important point the book makes is in the area of trading of natural resources for weapons. With the major arms dealer countries happening to be permanent members of the UN Security Council, military intervention for humanitarian reasons degenerates further, forcing one to question the legitimacy and accountability of UN resolutions.

This book is an invaluable analysis which, in addition to imparting a deep insight into the complex nature of fragile states, gives a coherent historical framework which defines political trends in today’s era. It also show how the failure of the UN to act consistently creates further mistrust within communities living in fragile states. While the interdependence between fragile states and violence seems obvious at first glance, the book delves into each country’s unique history, allowing the reader to discern different historical circumstances which ultimately led these countries to a similar fate.